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Danish cannabis policy revisited: Multiple framings of cannabis use in policy discourse

Recently, many countries have changed their cannabis policy by introducing medical cannabis and/or by moving toward legalisation or decriminalisation. Researchers have thus argued that traditional notions of cannabis as a singular and coherent object, are being replaced by perspectives that highlight the multiple ontological character of cannabis. At the same time, there is growing recognition that drug policy is not a unitary phenomenon, but rather composed by multiple “policy areas”, each defined by particular notions of what constitutes the relevant policy “problem”.

While the international trend seems to be that law-and-order approaches are increasingly being replaced by more liberal approaches, Denmark, on an overall level, seems to be moving in the opposite direction: Away from a lenient decriminalisation policy and towards more repressive approaches. We conclude that the prominence of discursive framings of cannabis use as a “problem of deviance” and as “a driver of organised crime”, has been key to this process.

“In the analysis, we described how Danish cannabis policy from the 1960s to the late 1990s was dominated by an understanding of cannabis as a relatively harmless substance, and by a discursive framing of cannabis use as primarily a social problem. This in turn gave rise to a lenient control policy on cannabis users, and to a distinction between “users” and “dealers”, and between cannabis (“soft”) and “hard” drugs. While the framing of cannabis as a social problem remains, in recent decades it has largely been overtaken by more control-oriented discourses that do not distinguish between users and dealers, and that depict cannabis users as either rational but flawed consumers, or as customers in an illicit market. Particularly the latter framing has been coupled by condemning discourses that attribute blame and responsibility for gang violence to cannabis (and other drug) users, as these are depicted as the economic market basis for organised crime. The shift towards a more repressive cannabis control policy has thus been fuelled by discursive framings of cannabis use as a “problem of deviance” and as a “driver of organised crime”. While the international trend seems to be that prohibitionist approaches in cannabis control policy are increasingly being replaced by more lenient approaches, including decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis, in relation to control policy, Denmark is moving in the opposite direction.

However, as noted above, cannabis policies are complex and sometimes characterised by oppositional trends. As an illustration of this, we outlined how Danish cannabis policy is also shaped by discursive framings of cannabis use as a health and risk problem, and most recently as a medical problem. While these latter framings can be seen as alternatives to the dominant control policy framings, our analysis indicates that the prevention, treatment, and medical cannabis policy areas are today also heavily influenced by lines of thinking and approaches originating in the control policy area. In the analysis, for instance, we described how some domains of the preventive policy area are increasingly influenced by discursive depictions of young cannabis users as risks-to-others, and by preventive approaches based on deterrence and punishment, such as exclusion from educational institutions. Furthermore, the recent introduction of the pilot programme for medical cannabis rests on a clear discursive distinction between, on the one hand, the sick and deserving “patient”, who uses cannabis strictly for pain relief, and, on the other, the “flawed recreational user”, who uses cannabis for pleasure. In Denmark, the introduction of a medical cannabis trial has thus not fundamentally altered the general position of cannabis in Danish policy (debates), as, for instance, illustrated by the parliament’s recent rejections of legalisation proposals. Due to the fact that most cannabis policy areas in Denmark are today coloured by repressive control thinking, discussions and initiatives aimed at harm reduction, which are currently prevalent in relation to, for example, heroin users (Houborg & Frank, 2014Thylstrup et al., 2019), are also almost non-existent in relation to cannabis and cannabis users.

How Danish cannabis policy will develop in the future is difficult to predict. Internationally, trends towards decriminalisation or legalisation follow the longstanding differentiation between “soft” and “hard” drugs. Whether Danish cannabis policy will change back to differentiate between “soft” and “hard” drugs after almost two decades with a repressive control policy is difficult to say. Importantly, however, while we see changes in some countries towards decriminalisation or legalisation, most countries still have a rather repressive control policy towards cannabis, and other countries aside from Denmark go against liberalisation trends. The Netherlands, for example, have traditionally had the most lenient cannabis policy in Europe, but in recent decades they have slowly tightened their cannabis policy. While Dutch cannabis policy is still “liberal” or “lenient”, it is today far from the liberal cannabis policy that was established in the 1970s (van de Bunt & Mueller, 2021). How national cannabis policies develop, and hence differ, does not only go one way from repressive to lenient, but must be understood in relation to the point of departure of how lenient or repressive the control policy has been in the past. This also goes for Denmark, which, in a Nordic comparative perspective, traditionally has had a very lenient cannabis policy (Laursen & Jepsen, 2002Storgaard, 2000). While Danish cannabis control policy in recent decades has moved in a more repressive direction, this does not mean that Denmark has taken a lead position in terms of cannabis control intensity. Measured by the number of cannabis seizures relative to the population size, Sweden and Norway still display the highest enforcement intensity in the region. The shift towards a more control-oriented approach in Denmark is, however, indicative of a convergence in control intensity between the Nordic countries, with Denmark becoming more similar to Sweden and Norway (Moeller, 2019).

With the legalisation and decriminalisation tendencies elsewhere, including Norway in a Nordic context, and with the easy access to information about cannabis online, it might in the future be difficult for Danish authorities to uphold the current dominant risk, harm and organised crime perspective in Danish cannabis policy as the dominant legitimate perspective. Several opinion polls have for instance shown that a small majority of the Danish population is now in favour of a more lenient cannabis policy (Berlingske Tidende, 2016Dr.dk, 2017). There thus seems to be a divide between national politicians and their constituents. In this perspective, discussions not only about alternative regulations of cannabis, but also about how to differentiate between problematic and unproblematic use of cannabis (e.g., in relation to mode of administration, frequency of use, cannabis potency), as is today done with the use of alcohol (Danish Health Authority, 2021), seems important. These discussions could favourably be conducted in a harm reduction policy framing and would add to the present cannabis policy areas in Denmark.”

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1. Søgaard TF, Nygaard-Christensen M, Frank VA. Danish cannabis policy revisited: Multiple framings of cannabis use in policy discourse. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. June 2021. doi:10.1177/14550725211018602