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POLITICS

How likely is it that Sweden would ever legalise cannabis?

As Germany moves to legalise the sale of cannabis, The Local investigates if the same thing could ever happen in Sweden. 

a marijuana plant
Sweden has long taken a hard line on drugs. Photo: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

Cannabis is the most used drug in the European Union. The EU’s latest drug report estimates that around 78.5 million adults have used it at some point in their lives. 

But the recreational use of cannabis is only legal in a few EU countries. Malta became the first EU country to legalise the use and growth of cannabis for recreational purposes at the beginning of December.  

Now Germany’s new centre-left coalition government has agreed to the controlled sale of cannabis for recreational purposes in licensed shops. Personal cannabis use is already legal in Canada, Uruguay, and some parts of the US. Germany would be the largest nation in the world to make the move.

A study by the University of Düsseldorf found that legalising cannabis could bring Germany more than €4.7 billion in additional revenue. Some also argue that it could take power away from criminal gangs. Government regulation could better control the strength and availability of cannabis as well as preventing harmful substances like fentanyl from being added. 

While cannabis-use has been linked to schizophrenia, psychosis and memory loss, it has not been definitively linked to an overdose death. Studies have also found that it can reduce pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea.  

International laws oblige countries to impose criminal penalties for the supply of drugs for non-medical purposes. But last year, the UN reclassified cannabis to recognise its therapeutic uses. And now Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg and The Netherlands (where, despite being associated with liberal drugs policies, supply is illegal but tolerated in some circumstances) are discussing the move toward increased legalisation. 

But will Sweden? 

One of the overarching goals of the Swedish drug strategy is a totally drug-free society. Sweden is where the first World Forum Against Drugs was arranged in 2008. Since 1988 it’s been a criminal offence not only to possess cannabis, but to use it too. 

“We have a long tradition of regarding cannabis as a dangerous drug. The authorities have exaggerated the risks for many years. It is not as dangerous as some say and not as safe as others say,” Bengt Svensson, professor emeritus in social work at Malmö University, told The Local.

The Swedish model doesn’t differentiate between “hard” or “soft” drugs. Cannabis and heroin are both classified as narcotics. Sweden’s drug policy is based on the assumption that all non-medical use of narcotics is abuse. The government only recently allowed the use of medicinal cannabis in special circumstances. 

The state has long held that this punitive approach is responsible for Sweden’s historically low levels of drug use. While 28 percent of adults in Germany have reported using cannabis at some point in their lives, that number is just 17 percent in Sweden. 

But Sweden has the highest proportion of drug-related deaths in the EU. In 2019, 540 people died from an overdose in Sweden, most from opiates.  

While drug use is comparatively low in Sweden, it is increasing. The country is now further away from its goal of being “drug-free” than when the ban on drug use began. According to the Health Ministry, an estimated 29,500 people in Sweden are “problematic drug users”.

Street prices have declined in recent years (a gram of cannabis now costs about €11) and the strength and availability of drugs has increased. Sweden conducts thousands of drug seizures a year, but the vast majority of drug convictions are for possession or use.

As drug use and deaths continue to increase, the Public Health Authority has called for an inquiry into Sweden’s ban on drug use, arguing that they do not know enough about the effects of the legislation. But the government has said no

Health Minister Lena Hallengren has said that she would like to see more effective substance abuse care but does not want to investigate decriminalisation. On SVT’s news programme Aktuellt she said: “I do not want to tell a whole generation of young people that it is OK to use drugs.” 

Earlier this year, three youth branches of Swedish centre-right parties asked the government to consider decriminalising cannabis, encouraging an inquiry into the consequences of the ban. There have been opinion pieces in newspapers calling for decriminalisation, and the government has announced a greater focus on drug policy.

But cannabis reform is far from the top of the political agenda.

“Sweden will be among the last countries in Europe to legalise cannabis. Maybe it’ll happen in 20 or 30 years,” Svensson said. “Legalisation is against everything Sweden has stood for over many years.” 

Svensson thinks decriminalisation will only happen if Sweden’s Nordic neighbours go through with it first. The government and its authorities will then want to evaluate what happens.

So the short answer is no: Sweden won’t be legalising or even decriminalising the use of cannabis any time soon. 

“It’s a long way to go,” said Svensson.

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HEALTH

FACT CHECK: Are Brits banned from giving blood in Sweden?

In many countries, potential blood doners who lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996 are banned from giving blood due to a risk of mad cow disease. What's the situation like in Sweden?

FACT CHECK: Are Brits banned from giving blood in Sweden?

Why are Brits banned from giving blood in some countries?

Blood donation bans for anyone living in the UK between 1980-96 are currently in place across Europe: Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Norway all currently have permanent bans on donating blood for anyone in this group.

Brits in this group are also banned from giving blood in the US and Canada.

These bans were originally introduced in the 90s amid an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the UK, commonly referred to as “mad cow disease” in English, or galna ko-sjukan in Swedish.

Mad cow disease is spread by eating the meat of affected cattle, hence the ban for people resident in the UK during the outbreak.

There’s currently no way of screening blood for BSE, and with estimates suggesting that as many as one in 2,000 people in the UK could carry the disease, many countries chose to ban donations from this group altogether back in the 90s as a precautionary measure.

Now, some countries – such as Ireland in 2019 and Australia in 2022 – have started to lift bans on British blood donations, following reviews of epidemiological data and expert advice.

What’s the situation like in Sweden?

In Sweden, the situation is slightly different. Anyone wanting to give blood must answer a series of questions on their medical and personal history, including a question asking whether they lived in the UK for six months between 1980 and 1996.

The Local contacted GeBlod, Sweden’s blood donor organisation, to ask about this question and what it means for prospective blood donors in Sweden.

“In Skåne, it’s possible to donate blood even if you have lived in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 1996,” Ingrid Johansson, GeBlod spokesperson for the Skåne region told The Local.

“We split the bag of blood which is donated into red blood cells, plasma and platelets. The plasma can also be sent to medicine production if it’s not given to the patient.”

Johansson said that this could differ in different regions.

“In Skåne, we don’t send this plasma [from those living in the UK at this time] to medicine production. You can donate blood, but the plasma won’t be used to make medicines, it will go to patients, like most plasma does.”

It may seem counterintuitive that plasma can be given to patients but not used in medicine production, but it’s because of pharmaceutical regulations.

Pharmaceutical companies often make drugs for sale all over the world, meaning that it is easier to comply with international rules on British blood use in medicines rather than use materials which won’t be accepted in some countries.

Although many countries have begun to allow British blood donors to donate blood, it would require each individual country with a ban on British blood to change their laws before medicines using British plasma could be approved worldwide.

Johansson said that regulations could differ in different areas of Sweden, so it’s a good idea to check with your local blood donation centre first if you’re interested in donating blood.

“In some parts of Sweden, they don’t send plasma to the same company we do, rather to another company. It depends on what requirements the company has.”

She stressed that it was important to donate blood anyway if you can, even though they might not be able to use all parts of the blood you donate if you’re in this group.

“We need all the blood donors we can get – what you should do though, is contact the blood donation centre if you were in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 96, and let them know, just to make sure they can use your blood.”

The Local also contacted Ingrid Engström, GeBlod’s communications officer in Stockholm, who said Brits are able to give blood there.

“If you’ve lived in the UK during this time, we don’t use your plasma. That’s plasma for medicine production.”

“These are national questions – the same questions are used across Sweden,” she said. “The question we ask is ‘have you stayed in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 1996?’ and then you answer ‘yes, I have’, and then we ask if you were ill or if any of your close family have had mad cow disease. If you answer ‘no’ to that question, you can donate blood. We just won’t use your plasma.”

You must be able to speak Swedish – unless you live in Stockholm

“In Stockholm – only in Stockholm – we can take donations from people who speak English,” Engström said. “We can carry out the health declaration in English”.

“It’s a good idea to call ahead to make sure you can get help – in most places, some of us are trained to carry out a health declaration in English. But it’s a good idea to call and make sure someone is working that day who can do that.”

Engström hoped that the service would be offered in other regions too.

“It’s a question of resources, really. Not all regions are able to do it.”

On top of speaking Swedish (or English in Stockholm), blood donors in Sweden must also have a Swedish personal number and Swedish ID – such as a drivers licence or Skatteverket’s ID card.

What about other countries?

Those who were born and raised in tropical areas with a malaria risk may have to wait before giving blood, even if they’ve never had the disease.

“You can’t have had malaria, and if you spent your first five years of life in a country which has a malaria risk and you travel back to that area, you’ll be banned from giving blood for three years. So if you go back often, you might never be able to give blood,” Engström explained.

“If you’ve ever had malaria, you can’t donate blood. I could travel abroad and get malaria today, and I wouldn’t be able to donate blood any more,” she added.

“Otherwise, for everyone else, you can’t donate blood for six months after returning from an area with a malaria risk.”

How great is the need for blood in Sweden?

“There’s a great need for blood right now – everywhere, the number of operations has increased now that hospitals want to shorten their queues after the pandemic, so there’s a need for more blood to be able to complete these,” Engström said.

“In general, just in the Stockholm region, we use around 100 litres of blood a day in our hospitals. If we zoom out to the whole of Sweden, one bag of blood is used per minute, around the clock, every day of the year.”

“So it’s a lot. We need more people to give blood, we need a larger base – not everyone can run and go give blood four times a year or three times a year for women, that’s one thing, but on the other hand, we need a group of people who are able to give blood which we can call in, ask to come in and give blood now, for example.”

Engström also mentioned the importance of giving blood, specifically now and in the run-up to the summer months.

“You’re very welcome to come and give blood before you go on holiday. People go on holiday, obviously, but the healthcare need stays the same.”

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