Drug policy in Iceland: A paradigm shift in sight?

Portrait photo of Helgi Gunnlaugsson, a middle-aged white man with black-rimmed glasses, wearing a grey suit jacket and black shirt.
©Kristinn Ingvarsson, University of Iceland

By Helgi Gunnlaugsson, Professor of Sociology, University of Iceland

I always enjoy participating in the annual European criminology conference. This year only held online. A pity not being able to socialize on site with the colleagues yet easy to wander between different sessions. This year I gave a talk in a working group on European drug policies. I opened my input by announcing a forthcoming book publication from Stockholm University Press: Retreat or Entrenchment? Drug Policies in the Nordic Countries at a Crossroads edited by Henrik Tham. A real treat for all interested in the topic I promise!

Iceland has more or less adopted a criminal justice response to production, possession and sale of drugs modelled after international legal policy measures. Around two thousand drug violations are registered in police records each year, or about 600 cases per 100 thousand inhabitants, the vast majority only involving possession of drugs for personal use. For the most part, drug use in Iceland appears to be experimental and temporary for the majority of users, in particular taking place among younger age groups. International surveys (ESPAD) show that drug use among adolescents is generally lower in Iceland than in most other European countries. Life time prevalence use among adults shows one-third admitting cannabis use, and about 5 percent in the last six months, mostly ordinary citizens not involved in any other forms of crime. However, local research shows that the vast majority of those who hit rock bottom due to heavy drug abuse faces serious personal and social problems. Low formal education, limited work experience, life being crime prone, various health care problems and victims of violence – to a much larger degree than found in the general population and compared to alchol abusers.

In the wake of a public debate about drug abuse in society, signs of a possible paradigm shift in the control of drugs can be detected in most recent years in Iceland. Instead of a predominantly criminal justice response toward drug use, abuse of drugs is increasingly being viewed as a health care problem. A case in point demonstrating a shift is a recent legal change (2020) allowing consumer rooms for drug addicts; and minor possession of drugs not notified anymore on the criminal record of violators (2019). Moreover in 2021, the Minister of Health introduced a bill decriminalizing possession of all drugs for personal use, yet not passed. As for importation, production and distribution of drugs punishment continues to be relatively harsh with no policy shift in sight regarding prison sentencing practices. Around 40 percent of the local inmate population serve time for drug offences. A major shift toward an alternative drug policy is unlikely in Iceland unless a broader legal change takes place internationally.