The Blog

Coca and Snus: Sweden's Self-defeating Hypocrisy on Drugs

Sweden has made the defence of the entire 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs a central part of its foreign policy on drugs. This is unthinking, uncritical and blinkered.

Tradition is disposable. Evidence is marginal. Economic arguments are not important. This, in a nutshell, is what Sweden said to the UN to oppose traditional uses of coca in Bolivia. It is opposite of what it says to the EU to defend the use and sales of snus at home.

Bolivia has just secured an exemption in the international drug control system allowing for traditional uses of the coca leaf. The practices, such as chewing the leaf, had been in place for thousands of years among indigenous communities of the Andean region. But in the early 1960s coca was banned and all traditional practices were to be abolished due to fears about cocaine use in rich, consumer nations. This has long been considered at best an historical error, and at worst another injustice visited upon indigenous peoples.

The ban was written into the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Bolivia had entered the treaty under a military dictatorship, reason enough to rethink). In order to secure its exemption Bolivia had to exit the treaty sign up again with a caveat or 'reservation' on this issue. According to the terms of the agreement, to which over 180 nations are now bound, a third of the parties would have to officially object for this proposal to be blocked. Less than 10% did this - only fourteen states. Thirteen obediently followed the US, which was first to try to block the move back in July 2012.

This was a simple political calculation: please the US and frustrate a small, developing nation. They all knew the reservation would pass, as so few governments were willing to interfere, so in reality little harm would be done. Reputational damage was a risk - this representing a clear disregard for cultural and indigenous rights - but seeing as this is all such a closed and little known process, that too would be a small risk for the goodwill bought with the most powerful nation on earth.

So far so shameful.

Sweden, though, had an extra risk, and one that matters a lot to people at home and to national economic interests. Within the European Union, it is the only state with a legal exemption for snus (a form of smokeless tobacco), which is otherwise banned. It is constantly under threat from tobacco control legislation.

The main justifications for the snus exemption are culture, health and economics. Snus has been used in Sweden for over 200 years and is an important element of cultural life in the country. In addition, it is much less harmful to health than smoking cigarettes, so a ban would be disproportionate to public health goals. Snus also represents a major economic benefit.

These are strong, valid arguments and all have been relied upon by the Swedish authorities at one time or another, including late last year in relation to a new EU tobacco directive. But with its formal objection to Bolivia's efforts the Swedish government has announced to the world, in an official UN legal document, that it doesn't actually agree with these arguments, and will vigorously oppose them.

In its objection notification Sweden argues that "the ambition expressed in the convention is the successive prohibition also of traditional uses of drugs." Even beyond being a central part of culture, however, coca is also considered sacred by indigenous communities in the Andean region. It is even more culturally embedded than snus in Sweden, which was the only one of the fourteen objecting states to call so openly for the relevant traditions in Bolivia to be put to an end.

Sweden further argues that the traditional use of coca threatens efforts to control cocaine. This is a reworking of the argument that allowing for sales of snus will undermine tobacco control, an argument that has long been resisted by Sweden. Even as it asks the EU to acknowledge the evidence on the relative lack of health harms associated with snus (as compared with cigarettes), it denies this argument to Bolivia. There is, of course, a world of difference between coca and cocaine.

Sweden consistently argues the economic benefit of the national snus market. In fact it wishes to see the export ban lifted. Bolivia, on the other hand, is a developing country. Coca is central to its economy, key to the basic survival of farming communities. This is not acknowledged by Sweden, even as it is at the forefront of the snus debate.

Bolivia has succeeded despite the objections. But Sweden, more than any other, got it backwards. It should not have been such an easy political calculation if snus had been factored in. Had Sweden instead backed Bolivia (by simply doing nothing) it would have solidified its defence of snus while not losing anything in its relations with other countries or harming its anti-drug profile.

By entering this objection, however, Sweden may have gained a small amount of favour from the US, and it may have further promoted its reputation for being tough on drugs, but it did so by contradicting itself, providing clear ammunition to those who would seek to enforce the ban on snus and ensure that the export ban is not lifted.

Sweden has made the defence of the entire 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs a central part of its foreign policy on drugs. This is unthinking, uncritical and blinkered. As a result the government's hypocrisy is in plain view - it is either disingenuous in its opposition to Bolivian coca and the relevant international ban, or in its defence of snus and its criticism of the EU ban. One wonders which is more important to voters at home.

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