In the Nordic tradition, Finland has long had a restrictive policy toward both legal and illegal drugs. Tobacco and alcohol are heavily taxed, and retail sales of alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of more than 4.7 percent are restricted to shops of the state monopoly Alko. Alko was set up in 1930 after the end of a failed decade-long experiment with alcohol prohibition.
The use of cannabis and other non-alcoholic intoxicants has been a criminal offence since the early 1970s. A new drug law came into effect in 1994, putting users into a strange legal limbo. A committee proposal for decriminalising personal use ran up against the staunch opposition of the minister of justice. Like the previous one, the new law threatens users with fines or up to two years imprisonment. Sounds bad, doesn't it? Not to worry; in a strange twist, the law contains a separate paragraph detailing circumstances under which no legal action should be taken: this mainly involves private consumption by a single user or a small group. Personal use has not, in fact, led to imprisonment for years, but lawmakers wanted to maintain a tough-sounding law as symbolic expression of disapproval.
In Finland there was a sharp rise in the recreational use of cannabis, and to some extent, other drugs in the late 1960s. This largely petered out during the mid- and late 1970s, leaving the cannabis subculture fairly small. In recent debate, the anti-drug movement has used this as evidence that prohibition works. In fact, Finnish drug legislation has not been more severe than that in many countries where use of illegal intoxicants is much more widespread. One more plausible explanation is the conformistic undercurrent in Finnish society; here in Finland, the idealism of the radical youth and student rebellion of the late 1960s was largely usurped by the hard-line most pro-Soviet faction of the Finnish Communist Party. Another factor is the mythical significance of alcohol as a drug of intoxication in Finland.
The fall in illegal drug use during the 1970s also coincided with a slight relaxation of the quasi-prohibitionist attitudes on alcohol: in 1969 the sale of medium strength beer -- with an alcohol content of 4.7% or less -- was permitted in food stores. One of Finland's top drug enforcement police is on record as praising the beer boom, saying that it 'saved' Finland from the drug problem. The assumption that alcohol is not a 'drug' of course obscures the serious damage it causes public health and society as a whole. A recent study indicates that Finland has the highest per capita rate of violent crime of any Western society in Europe, and that about 80 percent of it is alcohol related. (Finnish city streets are still relatively safe, as much of this violence occurs at home.)
In the late 1970s and early '80s, public perceptions of the drug issue were largely dictated by the exaggerated statements and half-truths of the staunchest anti-drug forces. These were further fuelled by a sensationalist media. Disease, degradation, and death were portrayed as nearly inevitable consequences of trying cannabis. Lack of balanced information and first-hand knowlege also led to a proliferation of urban legends. Drugs were -- and largely still are -- seen as manifestations of absolute evil, and any attempt to question even the most ridiculous misinformation or to inject a sense of proportion into the debate is seen as virtual heresy. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the drug issue was almost absent from the Finnish debate on membership in the European Union. In Sweden, fear of drugs coming in over the open borders was one of the three top issues for people voting against E.U. membership.
In spite of prevailing narcophobic attitudes, there were signs of an increase in illegal drug use by the early 1990s. Also, in spite of immense public pressure, drug policy dissidents were no longer as inhibited about expressing their views as they used to be. Tired of its long-standing clandestine existence, the cannabis subculture got more assertive.
In 1991, the Finnish Cannabis Association was founded. In 1992 The Association applied to the Ministry of Justice for official registration as a recognized association. To our slight surprise, the application was refused in 1993 because the Ministry felt that the Association's goal -- promoting the legalization of the use of cannabis for adults in Finland -- violates the principle of good conduct, or 'bonas mores'. This does not mean that the Association is banned -- it simply is not recognized as a legal entity in its own right.
A non-registered association cannot have a bank account or telephone under its own name: we do, in fact, have both, which are nominally under the name of the Association's treasurer. Non-registered associations are also not allowed to solicit donations, and we make sure that all of our supporters know the number of the bank accout that we are not allowed to ask them to send money to. Nevertheless, we saw the action of the Ministry of Justice as an obvious violation of basic civil liberties. We appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court, which ruled against us in 1994. The case is currently under appeal in the European Commission of Human Rights.
During the past few years, the Finnish Cannabis Association has managed to make some headway in the Finnish drug debate. We are often asked to contribute to public debates, televison and radio talk shows. Our public statements and press releases get varying degrees of attention in the press, and once we were even asked to take part in a discussion organized by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. Nevertheless, we still confront a great deal of emotional resistance.
We make great efforts to emphasize that our main motivation is the recognition of the social harm caused by cannabis prohibition, and not the personal convenience of users. We do not to promote the use of cannabis, or any drug, nor do we deny that even cannabis can be a health hazard and can be abused. We consider this important, because much of traditional Finnish drug education has lost its credibility. We feel that one of the worst aspects of cannabis prohibition is the lack of age limits on the illicit market. We are also telling parents that although they need not approve of cannabis use by their under-age children, panicky reactions to finding a joint in their room are extremely counterproductive and could, in the worst case, actually push children to try harder drugs.
For many of our opponents, accustomed to having something of an information monopoly on the drug issue, our moderate approach has come as something of a culture shock. On the other hand, we have found a surprising amount of common ground with those of our opponents who are not resistant to reasoned debate.
In May 1995 the Finnish Cannabis Association was allowed to put up a display tent at a big anti-racist, pro-Third World open air festival connected with the International Year of Tolerance. The tent contained books, posters, and newspaper clippings illuminating various aspects of the drug issue, as well as a video corner showing drug documentaries. Thousands of people visited the tent during the festival, but for others, the presence of the Association at the festival exceeded the bounds of tolerance, and a frenzied media debate followed.
We have followed with great interest the drug debate all over the world. Our most concrete contact with another European organization has been with Germany's Cannabis Legal. We have also distributed copies of our magazine HAMPPU -- or 'Hemp' -- to various international organizations, including the cannabis museum in Amsterdam. The magazine itself is in Finnish, with English language summaries of the main articles.