Sources for this chapter:
1. Cannabis policy and legislation in the Nordic countries
Published by Nordic Welfare Centre, 2019
By The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)
In Denmark, the overall level of drug use among the adult general population has remained relatively stable in recent years. Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug among the Danish adult general population, followed by cocaine, MDMA/ecstasy and amphetamines.
In a 2017 general population survey, almost half of young adults aged 16-34 years reported lifetime use of cannabis, with those aged 16-24 years reporting the highest last year prevalence of cannabis use. The most recent data suggest a slight drop in the prevalence of cannabis use among the Danish general population over the period 2013-17, while a slight increase in the use of illicit drugs other than cannabis can be observed.
Drug use among students aged 15-16 years is reported in the 2015 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD). This survey has been conducted regularly in Denmark since 1995. Lifetime use of cannabis, use of illicit drugs other than cannabis and use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) in 2015 were all lower than the ESPAD averages (based on data from 35 countries). Trends show that lifetime prevalence of cannabis use increased until 1999, stabilised between 1999 and 2003 and has declined since then. In 2015, the prevalence rates among Danish students were considerably higher than the ESPAD averages for alcohol use in the last 30 days and for heavy episodic drinking during the last 30 days.
A recent general population survey suggested that, in 2017, approximately 0.7 % of the Danish population aged 15-64 years used cannabis daily or almost daily. Cannabis was the most frequently reported primary drug among both first-time and repeat clients entering specialised treatment in 2017.
The Danish drug laws are based on international UN conventions. The early conventions such as the 1936 Opium convention criminalized sale and distribution of drugs, but not possession of drugs for personal use. Possession of drugs for personal use were criminalised in the 1955 Euphoriant Substances Act (Møller, 2008). This law, with some amendments, is still in force. In contrast to the other Nordic countries, Denmark added legislative exceptions for cannabis when the law was reformed in 1969 (to adhere to the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961). The guidelines issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1969 and 1971 made a distinction between hard drugs and cannabis,
and between users and large-scale dealers. This formalised the way in which the police should enforce drugs legislation – including cannabis control and its enforcement – to reduce harm to consumers.
Until the mid-2000s, the Danish policy was characterised by depenalisation of cannabis use and non-enforcement of sanctions for possession of cannabis up to ten grams (Møller, 2008). Over the last two decades there have been some major legal changes that concern cannabis in particular (Träskman, 2005; Asmussen & Dahl, 2012). Similarly to the more mainstream European approach to illicit drugs, Denmark has moved from a liberal practice of depenalisation to a stricter policy on both the use and possession of small amounts of illegal substances (Houborg, 2010). The new approach is particularly visible in the legislation and in police work in Copenhagen’s freetown of Christiania, where cannabis is sold openly, and in the Vesterbro district known for its open drug scenes and widespread public use (Asmussen & Jepsen, 2007).
Medical cannabis is legal and regulated as of 2018 for a trial period of four years (Laegemiddelstyrelsen, 2018). Prior to this the Sativex product was available on prescription, as in the other Nordic countries, but the new system has released more products on the market. The producers of medical cannabis can now import and promote their products, and doctors are allowed to decide about their prescription.
Cannabis in police-registered offences
Cannabis was the most common substance in police-registered violations against the Euphoriant Substances Act (possession for personal use) in 2009 and 2010 (Houborg & Mulbjerg Pedersen, 2013). It was involved in 65% of all such violations. Cannabis cases were more common on weekdays, whereas amphetamines, cocaine, and ecstasy were more commonly found during the weekends (ibid.). The prevalence of cannabis in Danish criminal cases is higher than in Sweden, and probably higher than in Norway. This most likely reflects use in the population and the extent of the illegal market, rather than police priorities.
Cannabis on the Danish illicit drug market
In 2017, cannabis was confiscated on 15,364 occasions, amounting to a total of 3818 kilos; these are the highest figures in 17 years (Sundhedsstyrelsen, 2017). Police priorities and enforcement impact on both the number and amount of confiscations and heavy raids in Christiania, such as those in the mid-2000s may also affect the levels.
Systematic data of street-level hashish has been collected since 2014 by the Danish Health Authority (Lindholst et al., 2017). The level of THC is in general high with an average of about 27%, but with substantial variation from 7% to 41%. There are also regional differences between the locations that the hashish has been collected from.
About 5% of the collected cannabis cases in 2016 concerned synthetic cannabinoids (Lindholst et al., 2017). The prevalence of synthetic cannabinoids or new psychoactive substances (NPS) is generally low (Herold & Frank 2018).
In case law, possession requires holding cannabis for a certain time; a joint that is passed around among
several people is not necessarily possession in a legal sense (Greve & Elholm, 2011). Having substances in one’s pocket or hidden somewhere does qualify as possession. Recent guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions (2017) advise the police and prosecutor not to use ‘extensive and resource-heavy investigations’ to prove personal use.
Distribution or possession with the intent to distribute is typically sanctioned with imprisonment, or in rare cases with a fine.
After the attitudes towards use and dealing of cannabis changed in the 1990s, several legislative changes were made in a more punitive direction. The ‘pusher law’ of 1996 introduced ‘other circumstances’ when sanctioning for possession of small quantities of drugs. The court practice of focusing mainly on the quantity and nature of a substance led pushers to carry only small pre-packed quantities of a drug, which resulted in rather lenient sentences according to the legislative proposal (Justitsministeren, 1996). The proposal stated that repeated sales of small quantities and repeat offending were an aggravating circumstance that should lead to a substantially increased penalty.
The vast majority of cases concerning possession of cannabis for personal use, or distribution of cannabis (first-time offender), end with a fine (Justitsministeriet, 2014). In 2017, about 60% of the fines for violation of the Euphoriant Substances Act was a result of a summary procedure in accordance with the Administration of Justice Act (Retsplejeloven) § 832.
Fines should be converted to imprisonment only when the fined individual has the resources to pay but
chooses not to, much like in Sweden. The process to convert fines to a prison term is an administrative decision.
In 2004 Denmark ended the common practice to issue cautions to people in possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. Cautions had in practice amounted to a kind of depenalisation (Asmussen & Dahl, 2012; Houborg, 2010).
There are no specified alternative sanctions for drug offences, but probation can be granted where the court finds imprisonment to be a less suitable alternative (EMCDDA, 2017). It is not unusual that a conditional sentence is imposed with a provision to go into treatment (Penal Code § 57(2); Hildebrandt, 2016).
Youth contracts can be imposed together with a waiver of measures for young people under 18 (Rigsadvokaten, 2018b). This order replaced conditional sentences or waivers with supervision by the social services. The contract entails conditions such as commitment to school or education, leisure activities such as sports, or having a student job. The contract can also make conditions in relation
to place of living (institution or family) or drug treatment (including alcohol).