A citizens’ initiative in Finland aiming to decriminalise cannabis gathered the required 50,000 signatures at the end of 2019. Read this article by a Finnish activist, Aleksi Hupli!
The initiative, if accepted by the Finnish parliament, would make adult use, possession, and small scale growing of cannabis (up to 4 plants) no longer a criminal offense. The campaign for the initiative was implemented by the Finnish Cannabis Association.
The same week that the government of Norway presented their plan to decriminalise all drugs, there was an expert hearing at the Finnish parliamentary law committee on 17th of February 2021. The public hearing was supposed be broadcast live, but failed due to an unexpected technical difficulty. Finnish Parliament later released a partial video recording of the hearing (done via Microsoft Teams), which did not include the first 30 minutes.
Decriminalisation for cannabis users only?
During those first 30 minutes Professor Pekka Hakkarainen from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) presented a statement signed by the heads of the institute. In the statement, THL opposed a separate legislation that would only decriminalise cannabis use. According to THL a separate legislation for cannabis users would be problematic in terms of equality, as it would leave the most disadvantaged polydrug users and people with drug addiction in a relatively worse position.
Therefore, at the end of the statement, THL proposed that drug policy should be developed in such a way that drug use is tackled through social and healthcare policy, and that the societal debate should continue in order to end the criminalisation of all drugs.
Other statements that were missing from the recording were a statement made by the makers of the initiative and a statement by an active police officer from the Central Finland Police Department.
Suspicious data on cannabis-related deaths
Later, an additional statement from the police was added to the parliament page, which contains stark statistics on cannabis-related deaths and suicide in all Finnish Police districts. The statement says:
Regarding the link between cannabis and cause-of-death investigations, the most significant finding is the effect of cannabis and other drugs on suicide rates. In practice, death was invariably caused by the combined effect of cannabis and other drugs/medicines. Approximately 70 % of cannabis-related causes of death were suspected of suicide. The young age of cannabis deceased (born 1990-2003) was also noteworthy.
In the summer of 2020, there was a Finnish media report of a suspected “cannabis poisoning” as a cause of death. According to the article, the father of a deceased suspected that the cause of death was incorrectly determined. He speculated that there was an attempt to make his son an example of the lethality of cannabis.
If cannabis were to be linked to as many deaths as the statement made by the police suggests, there should have been at least a mention of it in the statement made by the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare, which often assists Finnish police with toxicological analysis. However, there was not.
Punishment does not make people better
Two other statements were made by Professors of criminal justice Kimmo Nuotio and Matti Tolvanen. In his statement Tolvanen mentions that “criminal liability for self-harm is, in principle, a foreign idea to criminal law. Punishment is not desirable to try to make people become ‘better people’”. Professor Nuotio has a similar sentiment, stating that “the crux of the problem is that in a system that emphasizes the freedom and sovereignty of the individual, ordinary people cannot be required to be abstinent from intoxication under the threat of punishment. People have no obligation to take care of themselves and their health, and a self-determining individual can even attempt suicide.”
The two legal scholars did have some different opinions about the content of the proposed decriminalisation initiative; Tolvanen did not think it could form a base for an actual legal change as its emphasis is on a particular user-group, namely cannabis users. Tolvanen states that even the current law allows a form of de-penalisation, whereby criminal charges for personal use can be dropped, and that in Finnish criminal law impunity for one’s own use should be the general rule and should be supported by, for example, criminalisation of use in public events or in places where children are exposed.
Nuotio, on the other hand, stated that the initiative is well prepared and feasible, but shares the sentiment with Tolvanen that use in public spaces and near schools should remain forbidden. Like the statement made by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, Nuotio argued that Finland should start a process in which drug use and possession would be decriminalised. He sees that decriminalisation has a strong basis from a legal and drug policy standpoint and that Finland should move towards drug policy based on human rights and harm reduction.
What the concrete outcome of the initiative and the related expert hearing will be remains unknown. Upcoming municipal elections in March might play an important role but whatever the outcome may be, this grassroots cannabis decriminalisation initiative has already succeeded in creating a discussion about Finnish drug policy at the highest political level, which is something that has been missing for decades.
By Aleksi Hupli