Party in Finland's ruling coalition backs legalising cannabis

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By Koen Verhelst
Cannabis plants grow in Iowa's first facility for producing medical marijuana products, MedPharm Iowa, during its ribbon cutting event on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018
Cannabis plants grow in Iowa's first facility for producing medical marijuana products, MedPharm Iowa, during its ribbon cutting event on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018   -   Copyright  Credit: Reuters

Finland’s debate on cannabis use has received a new boost after the Green League, one of the parties in the ruling government coalition, supported a proposal to work towards legalising the drug. The party calls the current system "prohibition".

The Green League, the party of Finland's interior minister, Maria Ohisalo, voted on the issue during a virtual conference earlier this month and the motion was accepted, albeit with the smallest possible margin: 183 votes to 181.

"We will indeed need to do quite some convincing still within our own party," admitted the Green League's Helsinki city council member Coel Thomas, who was one of the instigators of the proposal.

The small margin at the Green League's conference actually reflects how contentious legalisation (or even just decriminalisation) of cannabis use remains for now in Finland: among its 5.5 million inhabitants, only a minority supported the idea in the last survey on the topic in 2018.

Currently, cannabis use is illegal in Finland.

"It is quite a harsh system," says drug policy professor Pekka Hakkarainen, from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare in a phone interview with Euronews.

"If you get caught just once, you will be registered with a police information system for five to 10 years.

"This can lead to far-reaching consequences for schoolwork, a job search or getting a security clearance needed for particular jobs - in education for example."

In more than 60 sectors, people who have been convicted of only minor drug offences are blocked from picking up studies or getting a job.

Credit: AP
Finland's Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo rings a bell to signify the start of a meeting of EU interior ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019Credit: AP

"At the moment, we have prohibition," Thomas told Euronews. "This inflicts significant harm on our society. It’s easier to get caught when you are ill, poor or belong to a minority."

The penalties on small offences then result in further setbacks for people who are already at a disadvantaged position.

Hakkarainen agrees: "Finland has one of the highest drug death rates in Europe."

According to a study from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) from May, around 20% of these deaths occur among people under 25. The European Union average is 8.5%.

There are many cases of users who have faced losing their driving license because of a single offence.

"It’s a bias within the legal system," states Hakkarainen. "Even use is illegal and decriminalisation is needed so we can actually find the people who need treatment. The possible consequences make people hide their drug use."

Decriminalisation and legalisation (what the Greens are pushing for) are two different things, however. The former entails only ending criminal prosecution of someone who - for instance - uses cannabis or possesses a certain amount of it. Cannabis remains illegal, but lawmakers can opt for punishments like fines, which do not show up in the police database. Legalisation goes one step further and would equate cannabis to alcohol: legal but regulated.

In Europe, only Georgia has legalised cannabis. A further 14 countries have decriminalised the recreational use and sometimes possession or growing of cannabis. The medical use of weed is more widely legalised. Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay and several US states have legalised the drug as well. Italy is set to hold a referendum on cannabis legalisation next year.

Finland may as well head toward legalisation as well, even if that prospect seems far away for now. The Green’s vote is not the first time the debate has come up. A citizen’s initiative from 2019 -- which more than 50,000 people supported by signing a petition -- is now on its way through Finland’s parliament. It proposes to decriminalise use, possession and limited home-growing.

It is unknown at this stage when MPs will vote on the petition. The youth wing of the largest opposition party, the centre-right National Coalition Party, also expressed support for decriminalisation.

Thomas, who is a sociologist, claims the Green’s proposal is not a way to sway voters.

"We need legislation on this because the current situation is simply unsustainable. One problem is that a lot of opponents of legalisation don’t realise the current prohibition hurts society."

For some members of the Green League, Thomas included, the legalisation of cannabis is not enough.

"All drug use needs to be decriminalised. The people who can afford not to think about the effects this prohibition is having, are simply privileged."