Europe’s changing drug laws: morality, liberty and health

Saturday 14 November, 15.45 until 17.00, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, AB Box 16412, SE-103 27 Stockholm International Satellites

Across the Western world, attitudes towards illegal drugs appear to be slowly softening. In the US, a number of states have now decriminalised the possession of cannabis for personal use, as have Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic in Europe, though different rules apply in each country. Portugal has decriminalised possession of all drugs and usage there has not gone up, but drug-related disease and death have declined.

That said, the trend has not been one-way: in the Netherlands, for example, laws related to cannabis have been tightened up in recent years. In the UK in 2003, cannabis possession was downgraded to a lower level of criminal offence, only for the government to swiftly reverse the policy the following year. In many other countries, like Sweden, there is a zero-tolerance approach to drugs.

Yet it is also clear that societies in general have a much more relaxed approach to drug-taking than in the past. Where once it was a career-ending scandal for high-profile celebrities to be caught taking drugs, now it seems their reputations can be quickly rehabilitated. For example, in 2005, the model Kate Moss made newspaper headlines after being caught on camera taking cocaine, yet was soon signing lucrative modelling contracts again.

However, while there has been some softening of legal and social attitudes to illegal drugs, many currently legal substances have experienced greater regulation. Smoking is banned indoors in almost every country in Europe now. In New York, smoking outdoors is banned in public parks and other civic spaces, a policy that is gaining interest in the UK and other countries, too. Snus, while legal in Sweden, is banned across the rest of the EU. The Scottish and Irish governments want to introduce minimum unit prices for alcohol to counteract the availability of ‘cheap’ booze (which is already heavily taxed) and younger adults are now routinely asked for identification before being able to purchase alcohol. The UK government’s former drugs adviser argues for decriminalising cannabis, which encourages passivity, while restricting alcohol, which encourages rowdiness.

Even e-cigarettes, which are designed to be a much safer alternative to tobacco smoking, have been subject to bans and stiff regulation. While e-cigs containing nicotine are legal in the UK, vaping with nicotine is effectively banned in Sweden. The EU’s new Tobacco Products Directive will treat e-cigs the same as tobacco products, including a ban on advertising. Yet the UK government’s main public health body has argued for the wider use of e-cigarettes, which it believes are 95 per cent safer than tobacco cigarettes.

Are these trends contradictory? Why have some states relaxed laws on ‘hard’ drugs and cannabis while making it harder to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes? Does this reflect the rise in influence of public health – where mortality rates trump both morality and personal choice? Have trends for a more liberal society, a hangover from the Sixties, now come to an end? And how should we think of drugs morally? Is it wrong to criticise those who prefer to get ‘wasted’ than getting on with life?

Isobel Hadley-Kamptz
Swedish journalist; author, Frihet och fruktan: Tankar om en ny liberalism

Professor Fred Nyberg
senior professor in biological research on drug addiction, Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences, Uppsala University

Brendan O'Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Produced by
Rob Lyons science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum
Recommended readings
Ireland to 'decriminalise' small amounts of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and cannabis, for personal use

Minister also announced intention to implement 'injection rooms' in Dublin for addicts.

Rose Troup Buchanan, Independent, 3 November 2015

On the threat to vapers and vaping in Sweden

Vaping with nicotine in Sweden is now de jure banned following a recent court ruling.

Atakan Befrits, Nicotine Science and Policy, 16 March 2015

Dope is the dullest, squarest drug around: of course One Direction (allegedly) smoke it

If you really want to rebel these days, forget dope - drink booze.

Brendan O'Neill, Daily Telegraph, 1 June 2014

Cocaturismo: How Cocaine in Colombia became a tourist attraction

An extract from Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It

Magnus Linton, Utne Reader, March 2014

On the legalisation of drugs

Living in a civilized society means accepting laws that we didn’t make.

City Journal, 5 December 2012

Why do some people want drugs to be legal?

A few years ago it seemed unthinkable. But recently, public figures on both the Right and Left have called for the decriminalisation of drugs. What are they thinking?

Nigel Farndale, Daily Telegraph, 12 June 2012

Nu rasar grunden för svensk drogpolitik

Alla droger är farliga och leder till missbruk – det har i decennier varit en grundpelare i svensk narkotikapolitik. Men det är helt fel, visar forskningen. Magnus Linton har läst en antologi som torpederar en nationalmyt.

Magnus Linton, Dagens Nyheter, 26 August 2011

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Next year's festival will be packed with more debates like this one. If you would like to come, get your ticket now via our 2016 tickets page.
Session partners