Anatomy of a Fiasco
A review by Peter Webster of:
The Swedish Drug Control System

The Swedish Drug Control System : An in-depth review and analysis
Tim Boekhout van Solinge
Uitgeverij Jan Mets, CEDRO — Center for Drug Research,
University of Amsterdam

"There is probably one thing, and one thing only, on which the leaders of all modern states agree; on which Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mohammedans, and atheists agree; on which Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Communists, Liberals, and Conservatives agree; on which medical and scientific authorities throughout the world agree; and on which the views, as expressed through opinion polls and voting records, of the large majority of individuals in all civilized countries agree. That thing is the 'scientific fact' that certain substances which people like to ingest or inject are 'dangerous' both to those who use them and to others; and that the use of such substances constitutes 'drug abuse' or 'drug addiction' — a disease whose control and eradication are the duty of the combined forces of the medical profession and the state." — Thomas Szasz, Ceremonial Chemistry

Since Dr. Szasz composed those lines more than two decades ago, the occasional analyst of human folly has speculated how such unprecedented agreement might exist in our modern world, for it is a plain fact of life that such pandemic universality of opinion is not only exceedingly rare, but must indicate far more than mere consensus: Such a phenomenon exposes the very seam of civilization, it presents an opportunity for inspecting intimate aspects of the collective psychology of a people, the underlying and well-hidden cultural paradigms both constructive and destructive which give society its form and direction. Modern societies have shown very little agreement on anything whatever, even when the evidence has been overwhelming, so the existence of a near universal certainty should not only arouse profound suspicions, but provide observers with the most powerful of analytical tools.

But among the authors and theory-makers who have tried, none, in my opinion, has completely succeeded in explaining why it is, on this one very emotional and often hysterically-expressed issue, there is such general agreement. The inquiring and open mind, which on the subject of substance prohibition is evidently a rare species, has either fallen short of its potential, or simply been drowned out by the din of drug warrior propaganda heard in media of a diversity ranging from the National Enquirer and Reader's Digest to the most prestigious of scientific journals.

Szasz himself came closest perhaps, with his parallels and comparisons to the ancient rite of scapegoating, or the medieval Inquisition; certainly few have dared write such an uncompromising condemnation of substance prohibition as he. With precision and wit, the first section of his book Ceremonial Chemistry: The ritual persecution of drugs, addicts and pushers, illustrates our vain repetition of the ancient rite of the pharmakos, the scapegoat, in ancient Greece originally a ceremony of human sacrifice whose aim was the ritual purification and protection of society from plagues, famines, devils and perils of every description. But the Greeks recognized the rite for what it was, a ceremony. Today, shows Dr. Szasz, we are dead serious.

As with the understanding of crowd madnesses and ritual persecutions of old, a satisfactory and general theory of our great modern Prohibitionist folly will probably have to await not only the final demise of the madness, but an intervening period of normalization and healing recuperation lasting perhaps several generations. From the perspective of the distant future, historians may well conclude that the centuries-long phenomenon of Substance Prohibition, attempted for everything from tea and tobacco to toads and tipple, reached its dizzying peak in the late 20th Century as a climactic exaggeration ad absurdum of a long-enduring collective delusion and paranoia. But even if we could, by virtue of a time machine, read such a theory today, the continued existence of the crowd madness in our midst would certainly preclude any general recognition or acceptance of its validity.

Thus, although there now exist a few obscure essays which may someday be seen as harbingers of that still-distant revelation, they will probably have minimal influence on the immediate course of events and we can today do little more than study local details of the Prohibitionist phenomenon and force society to look at the ugly and counterproductive results of its obsession in the ongoing attempt at curing the malady by stages. There seems absolutely no possibility that a great and general truth about Prohibition, no matter how brilliantly expressed, could today awaken Western Civilization from its present nightmare. But in the meanwhile, to assist the growing number of individuals who can see the inevitable if distant dawn of a new rationality, a wealth of excellent literature exists and continues to grow at a gratifying pace. Such literature deals with the "local details" of the Prohibitionist phenomenon in ways which both illustrate its illogic and destructiveness to society, and suggests practical if only provisional tactics and strategy for limiting the ravages of Prohibition and tackling the difficult task of awakening the general public to its complicity and participation in a crowd madness of major proportions.

An interesting possibility for practical action in stemming drug prohibition madness is suggested by the volume under review here, and in general by the excellent work and publications of the Center for Drug Research in Amsterdam (CEDRO). That possibility is a differential analysis of Prohibition as it now exists in various nations and cultures with the aim of magnifying for examination the absurdities and purported benefits that result from the diverse policies and national viewpoints concerning "illicit substances." By observing and describing the specific and particularly the most irrational aspects of policy in each nation-state, making cross-comparisons of policies and results with other countries, and extrapolating these tendencies to their logical, often horrible conclusions, we may play off one particular set of absurdities against another. In this way, individual nations may be forced to re-examine their popular if counterproductive policies in ways which merely local politics and sociological analysis would ignore.

For instance, we may attempt to show how the arrest and incarceration rate in the U.S., which thanks to the Drug War has attained levels beyond the wildest dreams of apartheid fanatics or former Russian secret police, will be a natural if eventual outcome of Substance Prohibition in any nation following the U.S. lead in the War on Drugs. Such heroic attempts to imprison a large segment of a citizenry, when approached in slow stages as has been done in the U.S., can evidently enjoy widespread support, yet if it were today suggested in Britain or France that such incarceration rates and prison-building be undertaken forthwith as a drug-war measure, many diverse groups and most policy-makers as well would certainly resist such folly. One is reminded of the result of slowly heating a frog in a pot of water: frog's legs sans resistance. Tossing the same frog directly into hot water ineluctably mobilizes his objections.

In The Swedish Drug Control System, we are treated to a panorama of Prohibition in Sweden, a detailed survey which provides precisely the material needed for the differential analysis technique: The drugs (remarkably, the most abused drug in Sweden is amphetamine), the cultural antecedents and economic and social conditions in 20th Century Sweden, the important role of the welfare state in the evolution of drug policy and the balance between repression and treatment; we meet the Prohibitionist demagogues such as Nils Bejerot (a good buddy of that drug pseudoscientist of repute, Gabriel Nahas), examine the propaganda and the history of drug scapegoating since the more liberal 1960s and 70s, meet the press, the popular organizations and politicians, and view the uneasy interaction of Sweden with other European nations in the ongoing European Union. There are facts and figures, tables of data and critical analysis of same, and for the most part well-thought-out conclusions concerning Swedish drug policy and its grave faults and limitations. Especially interesting to see is an accurate analysis of the famous Legal Prescription Experiment of 1965-1967 which has been constantly denounced as a miserable failure, hence the repressive Narcotics Drugs Act of 1968 and the still current insistence in Sweden that legal prescribing of drugs simply can't work. The book shows how flimsy was the evidence, how badly performed the "experiment," and why such non-information and unsupported conclusions as the experiment provided are nevertheless clung to like a raft in a flood.

The book begins, in part, with a discussion of several puzzling questions about public opinion and drug policy in Sweden and Holland. Tim Boekhout van Solinge expresses what must seem a curious paradox: in both Holland and Sweden there exists a wide consensus that the country's drug policies are a great success, yet the two approaches are as radically opposed as any in the West today. Holland takes, of course, the most liberal and permissive of approaches to drugs and drug use, while Sweden's policies are in some respects even more Draconian than those in the United States. But "both think they are on the right track and they see themselves as being `ahead' of the other countries; and it is only a matter of time before the other countries will adopt their policy." One would think that such a conflict indicates either that one country is "right," the other completely "deluded," or rather that even within the narrow confines of modern Europe, cultures are so radically different that completely antagonistic policies may successfully apply.

Given my speculations above, a rather different conclusion ensues. The Swedish Drug Control System shows us the highly monolithic nature of policy and public opinion in Sweden, but by contrast, in Holland we find plenty of would-be-Calvinists and staunch Neo-Prohibitionists, and even many sincere if misinformed citizens clamoring to reverse the liberal approach now favored by a not overwhelming but significant majority. While it may be said that in Holland the practical and favorable results of its liberal approach are able to maintain majority support, the pluralistic nature of opinion in Holland would further indicate that a healthy situation exists which tends to favor the "survival of the fittest" policies and public perceptions. In Sweden, if we are to believe the portrait painted by Mr. van Solinge, evolution has taken a dead-end street towards a uniformity of opinion that indicates something more like a collective pathology than a healthy marketplace for ideas. And whereas the monolithic imperative of belief in Sweden may look at Holland and conclude that the lack of universal agreement on the "evils of drugs" indicates that the Dutch policy is faulty and a mere patchwork of ad hoc measures that must soon come adrift, the speculations here about pandemic agreement indicate, on the contrary, that it is Sweden which is in the grip of a national crowd madness.

Mr. van Solinge informs us that the Netherlands and Sweden have decided to work together in the field of drug policy in the attempt to understand the apparent paradox of their radically opposed approaches to drug control. Indeed, the study summarized in The Swedish Drug Control System was financed by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, and enjoyed the cooperation of the Swedish National Institute of Public Health, and we are told that each ministry is quite convinced that such a study must find in favor of the local system. Although this collaboration might seem encouraging news, the overview of the Swedish situation would indicate that in lieu of some nearly miraculous change of course, the present study will be merely the first step of a very long and difficult journey, and might well estrange Sweden, even be seen as an insult, before it assists some relaxation of the current repressive attitude. And despite its honesty, the accusation will of course arise that the present study must certainly be biased on the grounds of its authorship: No doubt there will be many in Sweden who will, in spite of the support of their ministry, denounce the book and its conclusions, continuing to insist that the grail of the "drug-free society" is just around the corner, thanks to the increasingly forceful repression characteristic of Swedish drug policy.

But facts speak loudly enough without having to manufacture propaganda from them, and I believe that observers independent of both Sweden and Holland will agree that this book is very strong on facts indeed. The independent observer will find it hard to imagine how a Swedish study along the same lines could continue to support Swedish policy after having examined with similar dispassionate objectivity the Dutch drug situation. In the United States, for example, the Dutch achievement is constantly and blatantly lied about in the media, and even in speeches to Congress, as the drug war machine can only continue to exist by virtue of ignoring the facts and substituting mendacious propaganda for honest reporting and careful reasoning: in this manner is the U.S. War on Drugs protected from the scrutiny which would blow it out of the water. Whether an honest self-appraisal will appear in the course of continued study by the Swedish National Institute of Public Health, or is even possible in the current climate of opinion, is an important question.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how Sweden reacts to such an exposé as found in The Swedish Drug Control System, for logic would insist that the reaction be far more of capitulation than rebuttal. The book itself shows, however, the near-impossibility of this. As in many Prohibitionist countries today, it is nearly impossible for a government minister, or even university professor or research scientist, to publicly express the least doubt about drug policy without suffering greatly for it. Mr. van Solinge reports the results of his interviews with public figures and politicians as indicating that many of them know far more about the failure of Swedish policy than they can admit in public, but that it will be a long time before any such knowledge will guide policy change or public opinion.

In the immediate future, then, this book should prove far more effective in providing the European Union as a whole with a portrait of the Swedish fiasco (and the European Parliament has already been making some significant anti-Prohibitionist noises), for it is plain that normalization in Sweden might well be painfully slow. As I have suggested, differential comparison of societies is a potent technique, thus this book, and the entire series of studies from CEDRO are of great value in providing Euro-politicians and think-tanks with meticulously researched views and data comparing countries in a way that should hasten an approach toward more liberal, more practical, more effective and rational drug policy. Nations in the grip of crowd madness will probably have to be cajoled and teased away from their obsession by a collectivity of more healthy views wielded by agencies of an international character and makeup.

I would comment on just one further important observation made in this book concerning the way in which Drug Prohibition is used as a means for solidifying perceived "Swedishness" and protecting it from Euro-Permissiveness and other purportedly harmful influences coming from south of the border. History is replete with tales of one scapegoat after the next, and also of legends of once-great nations succumbing to fatal bouts of overweening regionalism and xenophobia. America, great "melting-pot" that it is reputed to be, suffers internally from such insanity, whereas smaller, more socially uniform nations see the threat coming from afar. But the underlying collective psychology is the same, and probably is (to use that imaginative term of Weston LaBarre) an archosis, a seemingly ineradicable instinct still dwelling in the collective psyche of humankind as a vestigial holdover from our simian ancestors and the ways in which they needed to protect their social cohesiveness. But recent genetic research indicates that humankind is far more homogeneous than previously suspected, (whites are genetically closer to blacks than are apparently identical families of chimpanzees from different African regions), and in a world as necessarily interconnected as our own any hint of racism, and even ignorant or excessive nationalism, must surely be labeled pathological on scientific grounds alone. In the realization that we will all have to swim or sink together, nations, especially small ones, should be inquiring today how they might enrich their own culture by exposure to other cultures, not closing ranks with the conviction they are mortally or even morally threatened by heathen doctrines. The human race has sufficiently flagellated itself with such nonsense.

There is much else in this remarkable book which deserves mention and discussion. (It's main fault is merely one of frequent but minor errors of English grammar and usage which derives, no doubt, from an inadequate going-over by someone more fluent in English than in Dutch.) I should perhaps say that the author is far more cautious and measured in overt condemnation of Prohibition than I, but that the facts presented in the book speak loudly enough. As one who is more familiar with the situation in America than in most other countries I was again and again surprised by the examples which show that the Swedish situation is, in many respects, a similar fiasco to that in the U.S. Political groups are locked into an escalating vortex of drug warriorism which must certainly end very badly indeed. Once the black hole of drug warriorism and pubic opinion supporting it gets past a certain point of no return, the madness seems irreversible. Interestingly, we learn also that Alcohol Prohibition was very nearly voted in during the 1920s in Sweden, so the parallels between the present drug policies in the two countries have instructive precedent.

Hopefully, further extensive study will be done of this Swedish situation, not only for the necessary task of repealing Drug Prohibition in Europe and eventually world-wide, but as a case study in how a society and nation can become entrapped in such collective hysteria, as a case study of the kind of collective psychological phenomenon which has so often led countries, and the entire world, down roads that might better have been avoided altogether.

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