Sweden takes lead on drug laws

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The Independent Online

Despite its liberal image, Sweden has some of the toughest drug policies in the world.

Despite its liberal image, Sweden has some of the toughest drug policies in the world.

Its zero-tolerance approach began more than 35 years ago precisely because the country realised that a more relaxed attitude had failed. In the 1960s, amphetamines were decriminalised, enabling doctors to prescribe them to addicts. Drug use soared from a couple of hundred addicts to 2,000-3,000 within a couple of years. The Government decided in 1966 to treat all drugs equally, from cannabis to heroin, under a single law. Stop and search laws were introduced to allow police to stop people they suspected of consuming drugs and officers could enforce compulsory urine and blood tests.

But while the means of catching users is severe, its treatment of them emphasises rehabilitation rather than inprisonment as a solution. Persistent offenders are sent for mandatory treatment and drug education for schoolchildren is compulsory.

The Tories have been most impressed by recent figures which reveal a mere 9 per cent of Swedes had tried drugs, compared with 34 per cent who had tried them in the UK. However, the party's emphasis on residential-based treatment, with addicts sent to specialist clinics run by community groups and charities, is not in line with the Swedish experience, critics claim.

John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said the Swedes concentrate instead on treating heroin addicts with a drug substitute at their GPs' surgery and they are then given rehabilitation help in the community to get them back into work.

Mr Mann, who published a report into drugs in his mining constituency last year, also said he discovered that many residential units for young people in Sweden were closing down because they are deemed not to be cost effective.

"Mr Duncan Smith is talking nonsense. He has gone to Sweden and heard them talk about rehabilitation and assumed that means residential centres but it does not," he said.

"The idea of sending young people to centres in the country is an old, old idea. It is not the way to treat heroin addiction for a start."