Retreat or entrenchment: Drug policies in Iceland revisited

Helgi Gunnlaugsson. Photo: Private

By Helgi Gunnlaugsson

Many signs of a retreat in the control of drugs can be detected in Iceland in most recent years. Instead of a predominantly criminal justice response toward possession of drugs, abuse of drugs is increasingly being viewed as a public health problem.

A case in point demonstrating a shift, minor possession of drugs is not registered anymore on the criminal record of violators (2019). In 2020, safe consumer rooms for drug addicts were legally allowed, and the first such haven opened in 2022 in Reykjavík.

New proposals have been introduced several times during the past few years in Parliament to decriminalize possession for personal use of all drugs, or only cannabis, originating mostly from the opposition.  In January 2021, for the first time a bill from the government, the Minister of Health, called for decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. The preamble of the bill stated the following about the objectives of the law:

„…define the drug problem in Icelandic society as a public health issue instead of a police case and a criminal justice issue; to view drug problem users as sick people not criminals“.

The bill did not pass, yet shows drug alternatives seriously considered by the legal body. In 2022, the opposition has already submitted a decriminalization proposal. At the same time the Ministry of Health reportedly is preparing a new decriminalization bill including a clarification of how to define personal possession of drugs, missing in previous bills.

Stiff drug prison sentencing practices

Importation, production and distribution of drugs carry relatively harsh sentencing in Iceland. The maximum prison sentence for drug violations is twelve years and the upper levels repeatedly used by the criminal courts. Up to 40 percent of the inmate population have served time for drug offences in most recent years. Regarding these sentencing practices, no policy shift seems to be in sight. However, drug cases involving increasingly larger amounts of drugs, sentencing levels have lowered somewhat. Punitive court practices for these drug crimes are seldom questioned in public or official debate in Iceland. The debate has centered more on drug abuse and how to adequately approach the addict population.

Concluding remarks

Iceland only legalized beer in the late 20th century, or in 1989. A radical change, or alternative drug policies, therefore, seem unlikely in Iceland given the short time since full repeal of alcohol prohibition. Yet as this contribution shows, some signs of a retreat of the punitive stand against drugs can be detected.

A comprehensive reformulation of the entire drug laws is probably more likely in Iceland if such a shift becomes widespread in the international community – rather than Iceland acting alone. A recent review article in the European Journal of Criminology summarized its findings by the following observation: „Alternative measures can reduce harms imposed by criminal justice processes without increasing drug use or related health and crime harms, but this depends on  specific combinations of contexts, mechanisms and outcomes“ (Stevens et. al., 2022: 30). Evidence based research is important, not only in Iceland, but in the international community as well, to inform policy makers on new humane drug alternatives.


Stevens, A., Hughes, C.E., Hulme, S. and Cassidy, R. (2022). Depenalization, diversion and decriminalization: A realist review and programme theory of alternatives to criminalization for simple drug possession. European Society of Criminology. 19, 1: 29-54.

Tham, H. (editor) (2021). Retreat or Entrenchment? Drug Policies in the Nordic Countries at a Crossroads. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press.

Helgi Gunnlaugsson is a professor of Sociology at the University of Iceland. He received his PhD from the University of Missouri. Gunnlaugsson´s main research interests include criminology, penal policies and the problem of alcohol and drugs in society.