A Contrast In Approach
Denmark, Norway, Sweden and occasionally Iceland are often swept together as the region of Scandinavia. Although attitudes towards cannabis vary greatly.
There is currently a tide of cannabis reform sweeping throughout Europe. Germany, Greece, Poland and The Czech Republic have all experienced legislative changes in 2017 with Ireland, Portugal and the UK signalling the prospect of a legal medical cannabis market in 2018. However, there are still a small number of regressive European states who have yet make any effort on cannabis reform.
This contrast in approach is reflected throughout Scandinavia - although there is still a long way to go before any of these countries become European forerunners. This is all the more interesting in the context that Scandinavia is traditionally one of Europe’s more liberal thinking areas.
Denmark is without a doubt the most progressive of the Scandinavian states - yet even its cannabis laws are notably conservative. Although the use of all drugs has been decriminalised since the Euphoriants Act was implemented in 1955, the “importation, exportation, sale, purchase, delivery, receipt, production, processing and possession” of ALL drugs is illegal. This effectively means that cannabis-related crimes can be treated similarly to harder drugs.
The country’s capital, Copenhagen, is host to a much more relaxed approach to cannabis. Freetown Christiania is a community within the city that has been known for its cannabis trade since 1971. It operates with little resistance from Danish authorities - however, attempts to regulate the cannabis trade within Freetown Christiania were rejected by parliament in 2011. So all profits from the cannabis trade in Copenhagen continue to fill the pockets of the city’s criminal contingent.
The Danish government announced their most progressive of legislative changes in November 2016 when it was declared the country would begin a four-year trial of medical cannabis starting in January 2018. This programme, as outlined by The Danish Medicine Authority (Lægemiddelstyrelsen), is geared towards helping those suffering from multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, spinal cord injuries and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. This reform will enable patients to access vital pain relief. Relief that would have previously made them criminals in the eyes of the law.
Sweden’s view on cannabis is the most conservative of the region. The government believes cannabis offers little to no medical or economic benefit. The only minor exception is the limited availability of Sativex, a mouth-spray derived from cannabis that’s used to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis, which has been available on import from the UK since 2011.
There were attempts in 2013 to advocate legalisation of both medical and recreational cannabis use by the Centre Youth Party (CUF). The party cited the commonly held belief that the prohibition of cannabis does more harm than the plant itself, due to its connection with organised crime. Sadly, this never made any serious waves within the Swedish parliament and no further attempts at reform have surfaced since.
As such, Sweden continues to have one of the most punitive zero-tolerance policies towards cannabis in Europe.
In Norway, medical cannabis has been available through special approval since November 2016. Sativex, Marinol, Dronabinol and Bedrocan are all available. That being said, cannabis-based prescriptions are notoriously difficult to attain and are only available after all other options are thought to have been unsuccessful.
In contrast, Norway’s recreational laws are among the toughest in Europe with the most serious cases of possession delivering sentences of up to 21 years imprisonment. Quite unbelievably, this is on par with murder.
So it’s fair to say that Norway’s overall approach to cannabis sits somewhere in the middle of its two neighbours.
Denmark is the most likely to realise the benefits of cannabis reform with government, society and business set to capitalise on the burgeoning industry. If this is the case, Norway is likely to follow in the short term and perhaps Sweden will eventually do so over the next three years.
Throughout Scandinavia, healthcare is primarily a government-run system. This presents an opportunity for the respective governments to streamline the introduction of cannabis into the healthcare system overnight as opposed to bargaining and bidding with a plethora of different private healthcare companies. This is a healthcare system with an expenditure of over €100b per annum.
The medical cannabis market in Scandinavia will be worth upwards of €3b when fully implemented. This value, when combined with the current recreational markets (estimated combined value of €300m per annum), demonstrates the massive economic potential cannabis reform presents.
The contrast between the regions' liberal social agenda and its conservative attitudes to drugs puts the legalisation of cannabis in Scandinavia on a knife edge. The legal cannabis market is rapidly expanding throughout Europe and without major reform, each of the Scandinavian states will miss out on this multi-billion euro industry.