Cannabis policy and legislation in the Nordic countries

How is cannabis use controlled in the legal systems in the Nordic countries? How do the Nordic legal systems see cannabis as a drug, and how does this affect the cannabis user? The Nordic Welfare Centre´s new report Cannabis policy and legislation in the Nordic countries looks at the similarities and differences in legislation and the ways in which the law is enacted in legal practice, police work, and other arenas.

Restrictive approach in common

After alcohol, cannabis is the second most common intoxicant in the Nordics and cannabis use is increasing among young adults in most Nordic countries. It is therefore not insignificant how society views cannabis use: is it a social problem, a health problem, or a problem of law and order? The answer matters a great deal to the user. Increasing use will put pressure on the societal responses although the majority of cannabis users are not problem users in need of treatment.

The Nordic countries rely on a restrictive approach in their cannabis control. All countries, except for Denmark, are influenced by the vision of the drug-free society where the justice system is seen as the main actor in solving the drug problem. The majority of all cannabis crimes in the Nordic countries have to do with use and/or possession for personal use. The proportion has varied over the decades depending on enforcement priorities.

Certain groups more controlled than others

Consumption and minor possession of cannabis are fining crimes with an entry in the criminal record in all Nordic countries, although the fines are often heavy and vary considerably between the countries. Even though fines may seem a relatively lenient sanction it has long-term consequences for individuals and poses a significant cost for the justice system because drug violations constitute a large share of the total number of suspects of all crimes. Particular problems arise when fines are used as a main consequence for minor cannabis violations among individuals with less financial means than the general population. There is clear indication that certain groups of people are more controlled than others, for example women and people living in wealthier neighbourhoods are underrepresented.

Legislative and political differences

Compared to the other Nordic countries, Sweden focuses more on minor drug violations such as consumption and possession of small quantities. The largest number of consumption offences reported to the police per capita are found in Sweden, and around 40,000 urine samples are taken yearly to prove consumption.

Denmark has historically focused less on consumption and more on criminalising sale. Consumption is not controlled, neither by law nor through official guidelines issued from the Prosecution Agency. Denmark has the lowest offence rate among the Nordic countries, with considerably lower penalties for more serious cannabis offences. Denmark is, however, moving in a direction with cannabis legislation and practice more similar to other Nordic countries.

Norway is moving towards a decriminalisation of consumption and possession for personal use, following in the footsteps of the Portuguese example. There have also been efforts to introduce more treatment-based alternative sanctions for drug offences, such as drug courts.

In Iceland the penalties for drug violations have increased during the last 15 years, with a strict zero-tolerance policy for possession of cannabis. The number of drug offences has about doubled since 2001, and there has been concern about the increasing use of cannabis among the younger population and an increased supply.

Finland has in the last decade moved somewhat in the direction of harm reduction in its drug policy. The repressive control regime nevertheless prevails as the main preventive strategy.

Source: Nordic Welfare Centre