Swedish drug problem, 1839-2011 (article)

Johan Edman and Börje Olsson, “The Swedish drug problem: Conceptual understanding and problem handling, 1839–2011,” Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 31/5-6 (Dec. 2014).


AIM – To analyse the Swedish drug question by examining dominant concepts used to portray the problem in the years 1839-2011. Theoretically, we understand these concepts as ideological tools that shape the political initiatives and administrative efforts to deal with the problem. The study is based on two kinds of source material: articles in medical journals from the years 1839-1964 and public reports on vagrancy, the alcohol problem, mental health and the drug problem from the years 1882-2011.

FINDINGS – During the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century the drug problem remained an individual problem handled by doctors. When the Swedish drug problem was established as a political question from the 1960s on, it also came to disengage itself from the medical frame of understanding. Medically oriented descriptions of “dependence” and “addiction” have appeared adequate or attractive when, for example, the socially motivated coercive treatment solution has been discredited (as in the 1970s), when there has been a desire to connect with an internationally accepted terminology (as in the 1990s) or when a new organisational model with a stronger professional support has been on the agenda (as in the 2010s). But otherwise the social problem description has called for concepts that have more or less explicitly dissociated themselves from speculations in physiological or psychological predispositions for substance abuse.

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