More nuanced approaches to drug policy work

8.10.2012 11.51
News item N5-61308

MSAH Ministerial Counsellor Tapani Sarvanti considers the on-going, open-ended debate around drugs policy important. He says that one problem with the discussion in Finland has been that it seems unable to handle the issue without going in for rigid categories.

Under a government resolution to reduce drug use and its related problems, an MSAH working group has launched a new action plan that runs until 2015. This replaces the previous action plan that ran from 2008-2011.The new action plan emanates from the current Government programme, which highlights the need to reduce drug use.

The working group is an inter-ministerial body involving the ministries of finance, education and culture, foreign affairs, interior, and justice. It also includes the police, customs and various specialist government agencies. In addition a wide range of NGOs were consulted in drawing up the new action plan.

A particular government concern is to ensure that the measures on drugs pursued by different parts of the public administration are harmonised, and that cooperation and joint coordination between them make drug policy more effective and efficient.

Broad consultation

It is in this context that Sarvanti stresses the need for more nuanced approaches to cutting drug use than the rather polarised viewpoints prevalent in much public debate. These, he says, tend either to depict all drugs as wholly destructive, or then that they cause no real harm at all.

"We have tried to listen to all stakeholders in preparing this latest action plan," says Sarvanti.

He stresses the importance of the action plan in achieving proper collaboration and discussion among all branches of government.

"This is crucial. It is also gratifying that there is much discussion within NGOs concerning drug issues that is not as divergent as at times in the past."

The steps being undertaken under the action plan cover a wide range of issues: preventive work and early intervention, combating drug-related crime, improving the treatment of drug addiction and reducing drug-related harm, and intensifying the treatment of substance abuse problems in connection with criminal sanctions.

Changing terrain of attitudes

The action plan also includes activities on the EU's drug policy and international cooperation, and information collection and research regarding the drug problem and coordination of drug policy.

"The new thing about the plan is that the subjects of the actions have been involved in planning it."

The action plan recognises that attitudes to drugs are changing. Young people now take a more tolerant view of drugs. Over the past year more than 10 per cent of 15-34-year-olds had tried cannabis. Drug related deaths are also increasing in all Nordic countries, and it is now more usual for children and parents to discuss drugs.

"There are no straightforward ways of improving the situation," observes Sarvanti.

He says that one of the positive aspects on the drugs policy front is that the civil servants working on the issue have become younger. There is a less simplistic debate on drugs. There's less of a tendency towards pompous speeches about what is good and what is bad.

Heavy penalties

Sarvanti favours a pluralistic debate within society. There are no absolute truths at stake. In particular he would like to see a change of mood that would inform discussion on the fairness of penalties concerning drugs. Guilty verdicts in Finland can result in prison sentences of up to 12 years.

"The maximum sentence is very readily used, which was not the intention of those who drafted the law intended. Fortunately, we're slowly realising that we've been unduly harsh."

Sarvanti would like to see drug users being treated more sensitively, rather than have to face tough sentences. They should be able to access treatment directly. Bureaucracy must be minimised and young people must receive social support in their own neighbourhoods. Overall, drug users should be treated with dignity.

This is also the approach of the action programme. It's main purpose is to lower the threshold to access treatment and remove barriers to seeking treatment.

"Unfortunately, the supply of treatment does not meet demand. We have to be able to market treatment packages and more definite options to decision makers."

Dual-track approach

Despite the problems, Sarvanti thinks that the Finnish policy on drugs has done a lot of good. The current action plan rests on a dual-track approach: penalising drug use and underscoring the illegality of drugs, while seeking to minimise the harm caused by drug use should prevention fail.

This accords closely with the two-pronged EU's drugs strategy, which rests on reducing the demand for drugs on the one hand, and bringing down their supply on the other. Minimising harm, focusing on prevention and early intervention, and ensuring good treatment availability are all part of the strategy for cutting demand.

Sarvanti says that minimising harm has been one of the greatest innovations in drugs policy.

"The two-track policy has bee really productive. A drug policy that reduces harm, has low threshold health counselling and needle exchange for users has been scientifically proven to work, not only in Finland."

Sarvanti lauds the increase in health counselling units in the country and the opportunities that now exist for drug users and specialists to engage with one another in online forums. When it comes to working at street level these advances have proven invaluable.

Substance abuse work is an extremely pressurised job involving professionals with an irreplaceable level of expertise. Sarvanti stresses that such work requires much commitment. And it shows.

"In Finland tobacco is responsible for 5 000 death each year, alcohol 3 000 and drugs 200. While that is 200 too many, we can see that we are succeeding, at least tolerably."

Kimmo Vainikainen and Mark Waller