How Do We End the ‘War on Drugs’? Perhaps Scandinavia Has the Answer..

by Richard Bayston


The policy debate around drugs in the UK is muddled and tripolar. It’s split between people who believe in legalization, decriminalization, and continuing prohibition.

The drugs prohibition laws we have are ultimately based on Richard Nixon’s dislike of hippies and black people. There’s no rational basis for acting like cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol. There’s no rational basis for acting like heroin or ecstasy are either. We’re filling prisons, police stations and criminal records for no real reason. 

At the same time, we’re handing a multimillion pound industry to organized crime, and living with the violent, poisonous results. Prohibition of alcohol had identical effects. I want to contrast prohibition with the Swedish approach.

Sweden broke with its history as a poor, backwards, and heavily alcoholic society in the years around 1945. Prior to this the Swedish drinking culture was of a piece with the Russian: flavoured vodka was the best-selling alcoholic drink and there was a lot of alcoholism and public drunkenness. In Stockholm just like St Petersburg, drunks lay down in the snow and did not get up. They fell in the Göta and the Moskva alike. 

In the villages across the north, peasant farmers fell down the stairs or froze to death at night. Descriptions of this period read a lot like descriptions of contemporary drug culture — and its casualties. 

In the 20s and 30s, the USA and Sweden both had strong temperance movements with links to the women’s movements, organized labour, and the protestant religion. In both countries these movements led to attempts to manage alcohol consumption. America banned alcohol, with a completeness, vengefulness and incompetence that shocked the nation and foreshadowed the war on drugs. Sweden rationed booze instead. 

The Motbok was your alcohol ration book. Well-paid men in stable employment easily got large rations. Poor people and women had a harder time getting a book and were rationed lower. Alcoholics, the unemployed, and others deemed unsuitable were denied (legal) alcohol altogether. 

This wasn’t the disaster that prohibition was, but it does point to some of the ways that drug policy could go wrong: heavy-handed, arrogant, tending to reinforce existing class and gender hierarchies. The system also contributed to home-distilling and the emergence of a black market.

After the 1940s the Motbok was replaced by Systembolaget, known to Swedes as System. System started out as a worthy replacement for the Motbok: it was grim and its purpose was to dissuade drinking. Even by the 1970s it retained a dour expression. You didn’t have to show a ration book but you did have to queue. 

When you got to the front of the queue you chose what you wanted from an unillustrated catalogue and staff fetched it from a gloomy warehouse in the back. Staff had a quota of people to ID. (They still do.) It shut at 5.30PM on weekdays. I am just old enough at forty to remember the old System, surrounded by temperance propaganda, under fluorescent lights. Imagine if Argos and the dole office had a child and moved to East Germany. 

Now, System isn’t like that. It’s nicely lit, the booze is all out on shelves, and staff are on hand to advise you what wine goes best with what food. It’s still closed all day Sunday, in one of the least religious countries in the world, but wine sells now: Sweden is the biggest drinker of box wine in the world, per capita, and only a fifth of its alcohol is spirits. 

System accounts for strong booze: anything over 3.5% ABV. Supermarkets stock a whole double aisle of beer, alcohol-free wine and alcohol-free beer and cider. It comes in four strengths: alcolfri (<0.5%), lätöl or light beer (2.2%), folköl or people’s beer (2.8%) and extra brew (3.5%). Pricing is structured to encourage consumption: Folköl is 26kr (about £2) for six half-litre cans, and you get back 1kr (8p) per can when you return them for recycling, making the real cost about 26p a can. It’s hard to find a bottle of wine in System under 100kr, vodka starts at about 260kr and whisky at about 350kr. If you just want a drink, which will you choose? 

System is very clear about its mandate: it’s not a profit-making enterprise. The price premiums are there to discourage drinking large amounts of strong liquor. They’re taxes that indirectly subsidize the folköl. It’s still stocked with leaflets warning what happens when you drink too much. It’s a shop that exists to get you to buy less of what it’s selling. 

What it’s not is prohibition. Which is good, because as we’ve seen prohibition means crime and violence. Just like alcohol prohibition in 1930s America, drug prohibition ‘is an awful flop’ that ‘can’t stop what it’s meant to stop. ‘It’s filled our land with vice and crime,’ continued Franklin P Adams in 1931; that ‘it won’t prohibit worth a dime’ is the least of its failings.

How effective has the System approach been? It’s driven beer drinking up, accommodated new preferences for wine and for craft and speciality beers, and driven spirits drinking down. At least in the official statistics.

It would be wrong to present only the official story. It’s never the whole story. Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. Between System and the old Sweden lies the home distillery. I once told a Swedish friend that everyone I knew under fifty had worked in a bar, as a way of showing just how dedicated we are as a people to getting drunk in public. He told me he’d worked in one too, but his was also a distillery, and it was called The Basement. It took me a minute to get the point. 

Obviously there aren’t many figures on bathtub boozing in Sweden. It’s less a feature of life now System’s grip has relaxed. Many people who would once have done it probably now smoke hash (here it usually is hash, not weed) instead. In any case young Swedes, like young people everywhere, drink less than my generation. 

Boozing and drugging peaked with generation X, at least in the official record. (It would also be wrong not to recognize that Swedish drugs policy is dangerously retrograde, on the back of a population where everyone middle-aged or older, including many a retired moonshiner, has been heavily propagandized by War on Drugs alarmism. The harm is ameliorated by light sentencing and humane prisons.)

What has all this to do with drugs policy? For alcohol, prohibition is over. The error lives on in the drugs war, forever approaching measurable distance of its end. It’s the same policy with the same outcomes. It’s made violence and crime part of normal life, it’s behind most acquisitive crime, it underlies or is comorbid with nearly every social ill from poverty to teen pregnancy, and it’s permanently established ridiculous hypocrisy in public life. You’ll find traces of cocaine in the toilets in the House of Commons but no mention in its debates — unless it’s to promise stiffer penalties. 

System can offer a guide to a legalization of drugs that balances liberty with harm reduction. We could price and structure the sale of stronger and more dangerous drugs the way Sweden does alcohol, so tax income from cocaine supports subsidies for low-powered cannabis drinks and edibles. 

That would undercut the current market for street-sale cannabis and seriously reduce the harm cannabis does. Most of the damage cannabis does comes from being strong and being smoked, and both are consequences of prohibition. We could make having a mild cannabis drink as normal as having a low-strength lager. 

We could create new industries catering to the enormous numbers of British people who already take drugs, without making it look like we were becoming the ‘nation of druggies’ we already are. And we could leave people who really insist on taking a gram of cocaine at the weekend free to do so, without having it sold to children.

Instead of funding cartels, their cocaine money could fund rehab and pay for subsidized cheap soft drugs, ‘the people’s weed.’ (Careful thought needs to be given to branding here; imagine the bite the Daily Mail would take out of that.) The burgeoning craft brewing industry, already celebrating a breadth of hop varieties that would baffle a wine snob, could add cannabis to the mix, potentially reducing some of the harm from alcohol.

We could cut the feet out from under the gangs — not just in cities in England, but in South America and Asia where cocaine and heroin come from. Drugs are one of the biggest markets in the world: only the trades in weapons, human beings, sex, and fossil fuels come close. With drugs, harm reduction is possible and ethical, and easily within our grasp. The System approach to drug policy becomes an instrument of foreign policy.

To make it work, we would need the moral courage to design harm downhill and liberty uphill: make it easier and cheaper to get high from System than from local dealers and the dealers will go out of business. Upstream from them, so will the importers who smuggle by the tonne. People who really want methamphetamines, like people who really want gin, will pay a premium for them. 

We need to adequately support the existing addict population or they will sustain a rump of increasingly violent gangs, fighting over a shrinking pie of drug money. That probably means giving free heroin or acceptable substitutes to addicts while we work to support their recovery. We should do this anyway. 

The System approach in Sweden represents a social compromise. Well-off people wanted to keep booze easily available, especially to themselves. These are the people who spent the off hours of the 18th century inventing the complex games of toasting and singing that survive as Hellan Går today. Plenty of workers wanted the same. 

Against the drinkers were those who for religious and personal reasons wanted near or total prohibition. It was a nation of drunks, weekend boozers and teetotalers. Change out drink for drugs and it’s Britain now. 

None of these people are really doing anything wrong, none are going to change their minds tomorrow, and none of them are going away. We need a policy that doesn’t trample on and harm some of them — but to get it, we have to sell it to the others. To do that we need to make it orderly, safeguard children, and offer a marked reduction in crime. 

A System-like approach can do all that and more. It can deliver on the promises of legalization — lower crime, fewer people prosecuted for essentially nothing, less corruption, more safety for young people — and do it in terms acceptable to people whose opposition to drug use is strong. An implacable rump will remain. Nothing’s perfect. 

It’s possible. Is it practical? While our attitude to drugs is draconian this has to come from the state which means we’d need a government capable of formulating multi-goal policy and acting on it competently. We’d also need to see if as a society we’re still capable of sanity and compromise. The obstacles seem serious. 

Written by Richard Bayston. Richard is a freelance writer and Masters student living in Sweden. Tweets @RBCopywriting.

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