Some sobering thoughts about heroin substitutes

In the course of the media analysis work we did below, certain media and social trends became apparent when looking at incidents of heroin substitute misuse and abuse in Nordic countries. The stories themselves made for disconcerting reading at a time when some might think that the ongoing global economic downturn is a big enough social ill in itself; one can only wonder whether repeated incidents of drug crime in societies deemed relatively ‘safe’ are symptomatic of the very strains people find themselves under in such precarious circumstances (even though we read and took many stories where many would find it difficult to interpret the motives of those involved in drug smuggling and trafficking activities in Scandinavia as anything other than cynical and brazen. Clearly this is a lucrative trade).

In a sense, ‘safe’ Scandinavia admittedly manifested itself in the dozens of articles we read but didn’t take as part of our audit (and indeed those we read for our own research purposes separate to this audit): those which didn’t refer to drug crime but which simply highlighted the work being done in providing heroin addicts with, and the legal rights of Nordic citizens toSubutex and methadone as part of official state programmes (although Denmark has gone even further in this respect and offered heroin itself on prescription). Similar initiatives can be seen in the UK, but we would say in all fairness that they don’t seem to be carried out with the same earnestness seen in the Nordic countries.

Yet that is the same as to say that we took a lot of stories and did our own research where very familiar themes were repeated: namely drug abuse in rural areas and small towns and the increasing abuse of heroin substitutes among the young. Whilst many of us will be familiar with the notion that such problems often surface in in sparsely-populated backwater settlements (in this respect, the 2010 documentary Reindeerspotting alludes to Trainspotting whilst challenging the concept of the rural idyll as far as Finland is concerned) it’s another thing entirely to try and gauge the extent to which those drugs which are meant to wean individuals off addiction become the very object of addiction and abuse themselves.

At the same time, it’s difficult not to notice the lengths to which people will go in order to apparently smuggle Subutex into and across the borders of Nordic territories as part of lucrative clandestine operations. Authorities in Nordic countries have to deal with the potentially embarrassing spectacle of individuals blatantly carrying out ‘Subutex tours’ of countries such as Belgium where the drug may be more easily available. If so, one wonders if Scandinavian countries sometimes run the risk of being caught between a rock and a hard place on drug policy: being seen by some as too liberal, being seen by others as not liberal enough.

Subutex - too effective a substitute for heroin?

Subutex – too effective a substitute for heroin?

We’d refrain at this stage from making sweeping judgements about such a sensitive topic but we’re curious as to what those people with a personal interest in the matter make of the modern trend of heroin substitute abuse and misuse. Is it any more pronounced in the Nordic countries than it is elsewhere in Western Europe? We took a fair few stories about drug abuse and misuse in Skellefteå (about 6% of our original audit for Sweden – and the city itself accounts less than 1% of Sweden’s population), but again, is the situation any worse there than it is in any other town or city in Northern Europe? With reports claiming that prescription Subutex and methadone are killing more people than heroin, do the Nordic countries risk being hoist with their own liberal petard? Or are they in a no-win situation where the decision to deny individuals access to heroin substitutes might be linked to high-profile stories such as the death of independent MP and long-time drug abuser William Petzäll? 

William Petzäll: denied the drugs he needed?

William Petzäll: denied the drugs he needed?

We’re interested in what you have to say on this topic – even if you aren’t necessarily from the Nordic countries. We’re called Worldly Scandifriend for a reason (and we hope that being friendly goes hand in hand with being discerning).


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