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Zero Tolerance and Harm reduction, International drug norms in practice,

A case study of

Sweden and Portugal


Chapter 1

    1. Introduction

    2. Research problem

    3. Aim

    4. Methodology and Research Strategy

    5. Contemporary Research

    6. Disposition

Chapter 2

2.1 Theories and norms

2.2 Norm Dynamics and Political change

2.3 Historical Institutionalism

2.4 Security

2.5 Risk

Chapter 3

3.1 Zero Tolerance

3.2 Harm Reduction

3.3 International drug regulation

3.4 The history of the UNODC

3.5 The role of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime

Chapter 4

4.1 Case study of Sweden

4.2 History of drug regulation

4.3 Prospects of change

Chapter 5

5.1 Case study of Portugal

5.2 History of drug regulation

5.3 Portugal and Harm reduction

5.4 Portugal and Zero tolerance

5.5 Prospects of change

Chapter 6

6.1 Analysis

6.2 Crucial elements

Chapter 7

7.1 Discussion and Conclusion

7.2 Future research

7.3 Final words

Chapter 1


In the world today, you find a number of normative and regulated initiatives to control what substances people are allowed to ingest and use. Some of these substances can be grown, farmed or chemically altered in order to induce certain effects on their users. One category stands out, that is the use and production of drugs and especially narcotics.
A wide variety of countries have applied hard regulations in order to control the use, trafficking, and production of drugs, sometimes even imposing death sentences.1 Other countries have decided to take a softer approach by decriminalizing, regulating or legalizing certain illicit drugs, like Portugal and Holland.2 This has its roots in the way states and individuals classify narcotics in relation to the consequences they believe to have on their societies. These regulations often come from strong moral beliefs, the proponents of which try to influence society in their quest against illegal means of intoxication. However, the moral views on drugs in society today do not always reveal a consistent message as some drugs with high death rates like alcohol and tobacco are more or less accepted due to their historical, economic and social significance.
Nonetheless, certain “drugs” have gained extraordinary attention, especially when talking about drugs in a political context. These drugs came to be included in the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) conventions on illicit drugs, which outlined what substances should be considered illegal. Certain states gave these drugs unprecedented attention, outlining a strategy of zero tolerance on use, possession or trafficking. This attention turned into an all-out war against certain drugs that were considered illegal and dangerous. The “war on drugs” has had international application for almost 50 years and was initiated by the USA as an aggressive measure aimed at solving the drug dilemma. However, international drug control efforts date back to the International Opium Commission in 1909 and the 1912 Hague International Opium Convention.3 The drug policies and the “war on drugs” have also come under scrutiny since their enormous funding and world wide application have shown a lack of success in battling drug use and have recently come under scrutiny for their negative effects. Besides reports of human rights violations the war has taken an incredible toll on human life as can be seen in Mexico, where reports of numbers of around 40 000 to 50 000 humans being killed since drug operation Michoacan was initiated.4
In June 2011, The Global Commission released a critical report on the on-going “drug war” and its contemporary implications. The Global Commission report that had a number of important politicians, presidents, intellectuals and participants like Kofi Annan and Paul Volcker, took a step away from the mainstream political drug discourse and called for an end to the ongoing “drug war”. One of the Commission’s conclusions was that drug addicts should be viewed as: “patients in the public health system” and that “prohibition” should be replaced with “more humane and efficient drug policies”.5 Nevertheless, the world is still primarily focused on using zero tolerance strategies like prohibition and consent on continuing the drug war in order to eradicate illicit drugs all together, but can it change? Some states have to some extent applied these normative ideas and embraced the health aspects in harm reduction. Still, by adhering to the international agenda by following the drug conventions, these countries have made significant changes in their view of handling the issue.
When looking at western countries facing the dilemma, two specific countries stand out in facing this issue, namely Portugal and Sweden. Sweden has been praised for it´s zero tolerance policies by the UNODC and been labeled a “model” for other countries to learn from.6 Sweden has also tasted the failure of legitimizing certain drugs in the 1960´s in the contested legal prescription experiment (legalförskrivningen), which Jonas Hartelius outlines in his book Narcotic Drug Control Policy in Sweden – The Post-War Experience.7
Portugal on the other hand has been battling drugs from a zero tolerance stance until 2001. But when the zero tolerance policies turned out to be insufficient in battling the problem, the state decided to turn towards policies oriented more towards harm reduction by favoring decriminalization, and since then had a fair share of success.8 These two nations who have turned away from one norm and replaced it with another have found reported success in their respective ways, but what made such change and success possible?
In this thesis, I will explore the foundations on which these drug norms function and what issues they present both historically and into the future. The idea is not simply to paint a black and white picture of the issue at hand, but to get a deeper vision into the grey areas of international, domestic and social drug norms. What are the relations between the drug norms and security and what is labeled a risk? How do the drug norms function in terms of stigma and what social dilemmas can be explored? These are just a few of the important questions that arise when you enter the very complex nature that concerns international drug norms.
In this thesis, I will explore the very foundation of these norms and what values and beliefs they may present in practice. A theoretical framework will be applied in order to hopefully gain the nature of these norms when looking at the issues through different lenses. An institutional view will also look at the structural setting in which these norms are applied and fostered. This will hopefully give rise to questions regarding the possibilities of change in an institutionalized setting. The next section will present the aims of this thesis.
The Aim and Purpose of the study
Zero tolerance and Harm reduction pose two very different set of values and when applying them into actual policies and law, they also pose different sets of problems. The purpose of this thesis is to further study the policies of the contemporary “drug norms” from a zero tolerance and harm reduction viewpoint and evaluate the basis of their application. By connecting these norms/viewpoints and relating these to specific actors, regulations, cases, historical events, general drug norms and theories in the contemporary drug field, I intend to unravel the foundations and consequences of these norms. My intention is to do this by identifying the key normative powers and acts (for example policies) that uphold and reintegrate certain norms into society, which will be outlined in my specific cases. These acts and powers will then be connected to more general implications and effects in which I have chosen certain theories (lenses) that will help me explain their fundamental values. The reason is to evaluate the existing international norms in relation to societies and what potential there might be of new norm cascades and future norm internalization.
My aim is to historically access the foundations of zero tolerance and harm reduction drug norms and clarify what issues they present today in the specific cases of Sweden and Portugal. In order to confront this aim, I intent to ask the following questions:

  • What are the essential social and historical factors of zero tolerance and harm reduction drug norms in its relation to contemporary drug policies in the cases of Portugal and Sweden?

  • Who are the KEY normative entrepreneurs, stakeholders, policies, actors and political groups in the specific cases and what significance do they present in upholding the norms of zero tolerance and harm reduction?

The next section will make an overview into how I intend to explore these questions in practice. This is to show how the aim of this thesis will be related to the actual work and analysis of this paper. The key concept in this thesis rests upon the concepts of zero tolerance and harm reduction, which outline the two opposing sides of this debate. These notions will be explained further after the methodological overview of this thesis, where the overall normative and theoretical framework will be explored in chapter 2.


This thesis will study the issues of International drug norms from zero tolerance and harm reduction perspectives. This is mostly to capture the views of these international norms on a wider scale of lenses and understandings. I believe that this is instrumental since much of these policies needs cross-fertilization in order to understand its grander implications. Understanding drug norms requires taking important factors into account on a state level, international level, institutional level and individual level. This thesis will incorporate historical sociology, historical institutionalism and case studies as its main tools in handling information. Toby Seddon who wrote the article Explaining drug policy: Towards an historical sociology of policy change from the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2010 describes the benefits of fruitfully applying historical sociology into drug policy analysis where he describes three key dimensions:

  1. A belief that to understand the contemporary social world requires an understanding of its historical formation. In other words, it is a view that sees societies as the product (in part) of a process of historical development.

  2. A goal of providing accounts of change over time that are explanatory rather than simply descriptive, attempting to move beyond just documenting change towards unraveling the question why change occurs.

  3. An interest in bringing together ´big picture´ of broad historical processes with the fine-grained detail of specific events, individuals and action. That is, it seeks to resolve the tension between looking for general structural patterns and recovering the detail of contingent events.9

I intend to divert my attention to those two states that have taken different positions in the field of international drug norms and found success in their respective fields, namely Sweden and Portugal. Another deeper insertion will then be used by applying the theories of risk and security into the fray of analysis. These theories will explore the fundamental beliefs and fears that are associated with drug norms and what constitute an individuals or a societies reaction when normally looking at the use of a ‘dangerous’ substance. I also intend to make use of NGO´s and civil society movement’s ability of providing empirical and normative data, which may become important for norm entrepreneurs calling for harm reduction strategies like the Global Commission amongst others. This is to show and analyze the general differences in international drug norms and policies in order to get a wider understanding of international drug norms and its accomplishments and side effects.

Research strategy
The empirical data will be compiled by combining governmental drug policies, statements, and norms with empirical data from civil society movements, international and national organizations and academics in relation to zero tolerance and harm reduction norms. The state empirical data will mostly be concentrated towards the actual norms put into practice as well as statistics and statements made in regard to the drug issue. The state is an important actor in this case since they have the power to make norms into policies and make societies abide by those rules. Civil society movements, national and international organization do also have a great deal in this process, as they may be called in as experts for certain question, show normative diversity and lines of thoughts in society as well as provide and spread important information about different cases and values. However, it is impossible to fit in all organizations and movements who have something to say in the matter, so this paper will largely concentrate its energy on those who provide important facts and values in the harm reduction versus zero tolerance debate. Larger organizations with more practical and important power like the UNODC will be used in order to highlight the international standpoint or element of the issue, since international organizations also help to influence states and its public.
Specific data to be compiled:

  • State drug policies and legislation that have been adapted and enforced into society and have important ties with zero tolerance or harm reduction norms

  • Identifying important norm entrepreneurs and norm agents, who either uphold, deny or spread a certain norm in society

  • Identifying the general consequences of using certain norms in certain cases and their overall implications.

  • Achieving supplementary data from academics to highlight explanatory views of drug norms in practice.

  • Achieving supplementary data from Media, IO´s, NGO´s, civil society movements and the UN, in order to supply both empirical data on important events as well as background data on historical processes.

After the initial research has been gathered, it will be analyzed and intervened with the essential concepts, theories and norms. Furthermore I intend to use historical sociology mixed with some historical institutionalism to further understand the social constructions, as well as institutional and international norm setting through time in which the fight against drugs have emerged.

The case study research will include getting a deeper understanding of how zero tolerance norms and harm reduction norms have played out in their respective societies. For this I have chosen two specific cases: Sweden and Portugal. The reason I choose these countries is their fundamental relation to using strategically important norms like zero tolerance and harm reduction in their overall drug policies. Sweden and Portugal are countries with similar populations and both are situated in Europe where they are considered ‘western’ countries. Their history and geographical situations may vary to a much larger degree. Sweden is together with USA the highest contributor to CND´s budget and in regards to normative policies that are almost solely associated with zero tolerance strategies.10 Sweden has also been praised by the former executive director at the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, who regarded Swedish drug policies as a “model” for other countries to learn from.11 Apart from Holland who regulated the sale of cannabis through loopholes in the UN Conventions, Portugal has since 2001 taken a much stronger step in the field of harm reduction. Since 2001, Portugal has become the first European country to decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs and implemented health oriented strategies instead. At the same time as both countries continue the fight against drugs, they have taken very different foundations of practical implementation into actual drug policies and values. The case study will be oriented towards identifying the key policies and normative powers through time when implementing a specific norm in their respective country. The case study itself will oriented towards what Alexander L George and Andrew Bennett calls Typological theory, an integration of comparative and within-case analysis, which can be found in their book Case Studies and Theory Development in the social sciences from 2005. Bennett and George explain this theory accordingly:
We define a typological theory as a theory that specifies independent variables, delineates them into the categories for which the researcher will measure the cases and their outcomes, and provides not only hypotheses on how these variables operate individually, but also contingent generalizations on how and under what conditions they behave in specified conjunctions or configurations to produce effects on specified dependent variables.12
It is the ability to use specific drug norm theories in the specific cases and it´s ability of generalization into international norm setting that make this comparative case theory a desired tool in this thesis. This together with the ability to: “clarify similarities and differences among cases to facilitate comparisons” brings a great instrument of getting a broader understanding of the specific cases and puts their normative theory oriented actions into perspective. Bennet and George continue:
This research method achieves a cumulation of findings via a “building-block” approach. That is, each case potentially provides a new component in the construction of a comprehensive typological theory.13
By accumulating extensive data from the two cases I intend to find the social and historical essence of why the cases of Sweden and Portugal have been able to apply their respective norms in society. These specific norms, that also constitute my dependent variable in international drug norms, have observable variations in their practical implementation. By adding theory based variables into the analysis, I intend to compare their fundamental basis of operation. The empirical data will in turn paint a picture of what factors play a bigger part in upholding the norms of zero tolerance and harm reduction, which will in turn produce the important variables. When enough data has been compiled, a deeper analysis will begin on what extent the findings correlate and differentiate in order to extract the most important elements in these norms. The theoretical and normative framework will then be used in order to grasp the very foundation and essence of how they may work in practice. Hopefully, this will portray a stronger image of what basis international drug norms rests upon and what the future may hold. Next section will paint an overview of available data and general implications of contemporary research on the field of drugs.
Contemporary Research

There is a wide variety of research done on contemporary drug policies and drug norms. One of the most important providers of statistics and norms is the UN organ Commission on Narcotic Drugs that is now part of the UNODC. Besides its convention against illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 that illustrates the substances that the Commission together with the WHO consider to be illegal, there is also a great variety of statistics and annual reports that outline the CND´s drug policy proposals.14 In fact, the 2011 World Drug Report from the UNODC presented one of the most extensive reports in terms of statistics so far.15 The UNODC reports are however more of a descriptive kind. More harm reduction oriented research and case studies can be found in the Global Commission on Drug Policy site amongst a wide variety of NGO´s and other civil society initiative´s.16Among these there are also journals that concentrate primarily on drug policies like the International Journal of Drug Policy that also presents methodological and theoretical approaches for analyzing drug policies.17 Another international organization that specializes in European drug issues and drug addiction is the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) which also has extensive reports and also yearly national reviews of drug policy. 18 Besides the CND reports that still work in the frame of a zero tolerance strategies, there are also extensive articles and work by NGO´s and governments that support the zero tolerance strategies like the United States and Sweden. Harm reduction affiliated organizations may in turn provide more information on both the international and national level. An important note is sometimes uncertain factual basis in which some cases and statistics rests upon. It is important not to forget that this is also a highly political issue, which may sometimes result in overstating certain values, statistics and facts over actual happenings. These generalizations may still pose important normative values since the institutional and political context where they are stated may in turn be an important factor in socializing the public into believing in its fallout. Specific orientation of these kinds of problems will be explored further in the actual cases and the analysis. The next section will look at the overall deposition of the paper.

The first parts of this thesis have confronted the overall problem and the specific aims of the paper as well as what my questions for this thesis. The methodological and general research strategy has been tackled in chapter 1, in which all around practical work and framing of the thesis have been explained. In chapter 2, we will explore the normative and theoretical framework of this thesis, which shows what lenses are used in order to confront the issue at hand, as well as the way norms and ideas come about in a society, politically and internationally. The theoretical framework is constituted to show what views will be applied during the analysis of this paper. The theoretical perspectives will also help to guide me in the final stages of analysis in order to paint a deeper picture of the norms and the dilemmas in general. The normative part of chapter 3 will explore the general basics of zero tolerance and harm reduction norms. Furthermore, Chapter 3 will also explore the different dynamics and history of the International drug control basis and the United Nations of drugs, crime and terrorism in order to paint a picture of the international history and body of norm settings. The case of Sweden will be presented in chapter 4 and the case of Portugal in chapter 5. Chapter 6 will include the general analysis of this paper and its individual cases. Finally an overall discussion is to be found in Chapter 7, which also will include some final words and thoughts for the future.

Chapter 2 Theories and Normative aspects
The following chapter is going to outline my theoretical framework as well as the structural patterns in which norms evolve. This will hopefully illustrate a deeper understanding into the factual and empirical material that will later be represented in the case studies.
Norm Dynamics and Political Change
In the terms of how norms develop on an international basis I will take help from Martha Finnemores and Kathryn Sikkink´s article International Norm Dynamics and Political Change, from the International Organizations journal from 1998 in which they argue that norms evolve in what they call a patterned “life cycle”. This life cycle is divided into three stages: Norm emergence, Norm cascade and finally Norm Internalization which can shortly be described as the socialization of norms.19 The first two stages begin with norm entrepreneurs who try to persuade a group, state or similar of the benefits of embracing the new norm, the second level of norm cascade is where leaders imitate the entrepreneurs to socialize other governments, states and organizations to accept and become the new norms followers. This can be orchestrated by norm entrepreneurs or organization that for example references their cause to elements such as empathy, altruism and ideological commitment in order to point to “appropriate” behavior.20 In practice this is done by using certain language that names, dramatizes and interprets certain issues in their favor, Finnemore and Sikkink call this “framing”.21 Framing also has close ties with the notion of risk and especially how that risk is interpreted in the field of illicit drugs. The last stage is when the norm becomes internalized and taken for granted but for this to happen it needs something Finnemore and Sikkink calls “tipping points” where the norm prevails over its counter parts in different debates. Furthermore, there is also a distinct connection between domestic norms and international norms as Finnemore and Sikkink argue:
In addition, international norms must always work their influence through the filter of domestic structures and domestic norms, which can produce important variations in compliance and interpretation of these norms. Even in situations where it might appear at first glance that international norms simply trump domestic norms, what we often see is a process by which domestic “norm entrepreneurs” advocating a minority position use international norms to strengthen their position in domestic debates. In other words, there is a two-level norm game occurring in which the domestic and the international norm tables are increasingly linked.22
Finnemore and Sikkink go on to explain that these norms are mostly influenced domestically in the early stages of the norm “life cycle” and that the domestic power of these norms lose significance when the norms are internalized on an international level.23 There are also certain factors to take into account when a norm reaches a level of internalization. Finnemore and Sikkink explain:
At the far end of the norm cascade, norm internalization occurs: norms acquire a taken-for-granted quality and are no longer a matter of broad public debate.24
Zero tolerance norms have already been internalized since the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic substances of 1961, which was ratified by a large part of the world. The following drug war and hard stance on drugs by most western and eastern countries from this time suggests that the world had accepted this norm cascade to a very large extent, even if there were some cases of divergence. Portugal presents a normative departure of these internalized norms, because of its overhaul policy change into decriminalization. That is why this thesis will both look at the possibilities of harm reduction norm cascades in Sweden as well as the possibility of Portugal going back to zero tolerance affiliated norms. In the next section of historical institutionalism we will see the limits of the previously mentioned norm cascades and norm entrepreneurs in terms of institutional power in regard to policy making and the possible influence of new ideas in society and its historical context.

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