The opioid crisis is overshadowing cannabis legalisation in Iceland

Alcohol, Drugs

Malin Wikström, web editor. The article is written in Swedish and translated by Semantix.
Published 11 Sep 2018

Despite the fact that there are people in Iceland who are pushing for the legalisation of cannabis, it is not cannabis that is the subject of the debate, but the ongoing opioid crisis, says Professor Helgi Gunnlaugsson.

A legalisation of cannabis was suggested in the Icelandic parliament in the autumn of 2017, although the proposal did not stir up much discussion and the issue was never voted upon. Apart from that discussion, the debate regarding decriminalising cannabis for home use or legalisation of it is rather subdued in the Icelandic community, says Helgi Gunnlaugsson, Professor of Sociology at University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Háskóli Íslands. The current opioid crisis in Iceland is however a topic of debate.

Helgi Gunnlaugsson is Professor of Sociology at Háskóli Íslands, University of Iceland. Photo: Malin Wikström.

– The official view in Iceland is that we are in the midst of an opioid crisis, perhaps not as serious as that of the U.S but not far from it. There are so many examples of overdoses, and the police and health care workers l have gone to the media to discuss it.

Prescription drugs

There are a lot of prescription drugs in circulation in Iceland. According to statistics from Nomesco more opioids are prescribed in Iceland than in any other Nordic country. Iceland is also the number one Nordic country when it comes to prescribing medical treatment for ADHD and the consumption of antidepressants.

– More Ritalin is described per person in Iceland than in most other countries in the world, with the possible exception of the U.S. More than twice as much is prescribed than in other Nordic countries. Many legally prescribed drugs are prescribed to both young and adult patients, and most likely some of them end up on the black market. However, there might be other sources as well such as possibly smuggling. In all likelihood some of them come from closed Facebook groups where drugs are sold. There is a supply of everything except heroin, which does not exist in Iceland. If there weren’t so many potent opioids there might perhaps be room for heroin.

Helgi Gunnlaugsson is part of a Nordic research project that examines drugs on social media. In Iceland, there are at least thirty to forty Facebook groups where different illegal drugs and opioids are sold. One of Gunnlaugsson’s students has managed to join several groups.

– To me, the groups came as a huge surprise. In these groups, anything you can imagine is for sale, it’s kind of like pizza deliveries, you place the order in the group and have it delivered. The buyer is not exposed, all profiles are fake, and the buyers don’t consider it especially risky to shop there.

Young adults are using

The attitudes towards drugs and users are still harsh in Iceland, as Gunnlaugsson’s research shows. More than 80 per cent were against the legalisation of cannabis in 2014 and in 2017 more than 60 per cent of people were opposed to the decriminalisation of cannabis for home use.

Despite that, 35 per cent of Icelanders over the age of 18 have tried cannabis at some point in their lives, showed a survey from 2017. A survey from 2017 shows that despite these attitudes 35 per cent of Icelanders over the age of 18 have tried cannabis at some point in their lives. This is a large increase compared to previous years, in 2013 that figure was 25 per cent and in 2002 it was 20 per cent.

– It mainly involves young people between the ages of 18 to 29, and in some respect 30 to 39-year olds. Almost half of the young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have tried cannabis. However, my research has shown that the young adults who use it grow out of it when they reach 35, 40 and older. It’s something that younger people do and experiment with.

The reason for the increase is in part accessibility, growing cannabis in your home has increased, especially after 2009. Also it is no longer the stigma it used to be to say that you use it, more people report using it, according to Gunnlaugsson.

– More people use it and try it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is problem use. That’s a whole different story. Approximately 5 per cent said that they have used it during the past six months, that figure has increased somewhat in the past few years.

Alcohol among young people more uncommon

Cannabis also occurs among really young Icelanders, 7 per cent of 15- to 16-year olds reported in a 2015 ESPAD survey that they have tried cannabis. The European average was 16 per cent.

– 7 per cent is a rather high figure, meaning that there are still things to be done. Iceland has managed to get alcohol away from primary schools and also 16- to17-year olds drink less. So we have been fairly successful when it comes to alcohol, not to mention tobacco.

The argument for legalising cannabis is about young people, says Gunnlaugsson, and draws parallels to the ongoing debate when beer was legalised in Iceland in 1989.

– If 12- to 14-year olds begin to use cannabis this puts their mental health, social development and wellbeing at a great deal of risk, as research shows. This is the main argument for not allowing cannabis. The same was said about beer, that it is a pathway into drinking, that young people would rather start drinking beer than drinking vodka or whiskey. This was just an illusion, nothing that was backed up by research or actualised. The same applies to cannabis now, it is viewed as a gateway to stronger drugs and the ban is justified by the claim that it is protecting young people.

Gunnlaugsson points out that one needs to find out why children start using alcohol or drugs at such a young age and examine the underlying factors.

– Something is wrong if you start that early, something that requires our attention.

The consequences of liberalisation

Despite the ongoing discussion about whether cannabis should be legalised or if home use should be decriminalised, Helgi Gunnlaugsson does not believe that Iceland will implement any of it unless another Nordic country goes first. And if so, what will the consequences be?

– It is possible that cannabis use will continue when people age, especially if it becomes legal, and that we would see more use among older people. But is that a problem? It might be for recreational use, just like the use of alcohol.

Gunnlaugsson once again draws parallels to the legalisation of beer in 1989.

– During the first year the total consumption increased by 25 per cent but after that it levelled out and was soon back to the same level as in 1988. Since then consumption has increased again since 1993, mostly the consumption of beer and wine, while consumption of spirits has decreased, and still is, but this is also due to the fact that we have considerably more Vínbúðin, Iceland’s equivalent to Systembolaget and Alko. In 1988, we had a total of 12 to 13 stores in the country, now we have more than 50. Accessibility has increased, and we have a lot of bars. Back when beer was illegal we had no bars.

The only change in drug politics that Helgi Gunnlaugsson can see in Iceland, without any influence from the other Nordic countries, is that misdemeanours such as cannabis possession for home use does not result in a criminal record, but instead only comes with a fine.

– When it comes to decriminalisation and legalisation, all countries, Iceland included, are keeping track of how things are progressing in the U.S, where some states have legalised cannabis. If consumption increases in the U.S because of legalisation, a liberalisation will be postponed here as well.