Alcohol is Iceland’s drug of choice – a recent Gallup poll indicated that close to 86% of all Icelanders said that they’ve had alcohol in some form or another within the previous 12 months. Although the alcohol tax is high, bars stay open until the small hours and open containers in full display are generally overlooked by the police. All other drugs, however, are more tightly restricted – the law itself accords sentences based on the weight of the substance seized, and makes no distinction between hashish, ecstasy and heroin. The sentences the courts pass down have been getting longer, to the point where almost no one spends less than a year in prison for possession with intent to sell. Despite these measures, drug use in Iceland continues to grow.
In the report Alcohol, Drugs And Driving In Iceland During The Years 2000 To 2002, presented at the 17th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety, among those who tested positive for driving under the influence, from 1997 to 2002 there has been a 10.8% increase in the use of tranquillizers, an 11% increase in the use of hashish and marijuana, a 2% increase in the use of amphetamines, and 9.5% increase in the use of opiates.
The Grapevine spoke to a few Icelanders who agreed to talk about their experiences in Iceland’s drug world only under condition of anonymity. Their names were changed to protect their identities.
Lára told us that while she was in secondary school, ten years ago, drugs such as hashish and marijuana were by far the easiest to come by.
“You can always tell who smokes and who doesn’t,” she said, “because those who don’t smoke don’t talk to them. They all hang out together.”
Lára tried hashish for the first time when she was 17 and still smokes today, several years later. Her attitude towards drugs such as hashish and marijuana is one reinforced with her experiences with alcohol.
“I hate beer personally, and I hate being drunk,” she said. “All I know is, I’ve never seen someone get in a fight from smoking too much. I don’t know why people think it’s excusable to get drunk and get in a fight, but that if you smoke [hash] at home you’re doing something wrong.”
This opinion is certainly reflected in Icelandic societal attitudes towards drug use. A Gallup poll from June 2003 showed that a full 93% of Icelanders are against the legalization of hashish, although 25% admitted to having tried it at least once in their lives.
Lára is similar to many regular hash and marijuana users that The Grapevine spoke to in many respects: she says she likes to smoke before watching a movie, playing a video game or while listening to music, and will typically smoke one or two grams every weekend. She claims she never smokes and drives, but admitted that she has twice tried cocaine.
Iceland also has strict policies when it comes to smuggling drugs into the country. In no case that The Grapevine found was anyone ever sentenced to less than two years for attempting to bring drugs into Iceland. Considering the risk, some more ingenious smugglers have found safer ways to bring drugs into the country.
“I’ve gone to Amsterdam and bought seeds,” says Bjartur. “I put them up my ass, fly back to Iceland, then grow them into [marijuana] plants. They’re not going to look up everyone’s ass. You’d have to be stupid to try and bring [marijuana] flowers into this country.”
When asked if he uses or has used any other drugs besides marijuana or hash, Bjartur replied without hesitation, “Yeah, I sometimes do coke, speed or ecstasy.”
Methamphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy seem to comprise the new trinity of drugs in Iceland. In the same previously mentioned Gallup poll, among the 8% who’ve said they have tried drugs other than hashish or marijuana, the top three contenders are methamphetamines (76.8%), cocaine (33.9%) and ecstasy (19.6%).
On any given weekend night in downtown Reykjavík, in any given bar, these three drugs can often be found being flagrantly used. And not solely in the town’s seedier bars: one source remarked that he’d seen patrons of upscale establishments cutting lines of cocaine in plain sight on tables. On one night in particular, this reporter was at a local bar and witnessed a young man buying drinks for total strangers within earshot of him, practically throwing money around as he danced and sang although no music was playing. When I asked the gentleman the simple question, “[Are you on] coke or ecstasy?” the man happily barked, “Coke! Why? Do you want some?” I declined, and the young man was escorted out of the bar by security shortly thereafter.
Perhaps the most poignant story told to us was by Rakel, a long-term opiate addict currently on the methadone maintenance program.
Rakel’s journey into the drug world began nearly 20 years ago, when she was 15, saying that she became interested in trying psychedelics after reading the stories of some of her rock star heroes. She sought out hashish and was able to find it “within an hour,” even though she hadn’t previously known anyone who used.
After moving on to methamphetamines some years later, she began taking the drug intravenously when she grew tolerant to the effects of snorting it.
“After that, there was no question of going back,” she told us. “Since I had started down this path with the needle, I figured, ‘Why not opiates?’ It was as natural a step as breathing.”
Opiate use is virtually unheard of in Iceland today, but Rakel told us that she knows “plenty” of people who abuse opiates, in much the same way she did ten years ago: by feigning some illness or another, getting a prescription, and then purchasing them at the corner pharmacy.
Rakel soon began to receive portions of heroin by post from people she knew in Europe, and was using the prescription trick to tide her over when these portions ran out, although these dry spells were seldom due to police interception.
“I’d received literally hundreds of portions over a period of about seven years,” she told us. “Of those, only two were ever confiscated by the police.”
Rakel says that her decision to quit and begin the methadone maintenance program came when, “the drugs weren’t making me high anymore; they were just keeping me from getting sick. I got high for maybe the first three years, but then that was it.”
In terms of treatment, Rakel was very frank.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the treatment centres here in Iceland fill up every few weeks. The addicts withdraw, are put on drugs by the doctors, and then released. In my experience, a small percentage will stay off the drugs but the vast majority will end up back in there when they run out again. If these people don’t want to quit, they’ll find a way to get [drugs]. They’ll do anything to get them.”
But Rakel doesn’t find fault with the drug rehabilitation system in Iceland. On the contrary, she contends that Iceland’s system is, “Excellent, in all respects. We have doctors with experience and education.”
In this regard, The Grapevine spoke to Guðrún Margrét Einarsdóttir, the program director of Hlaðgerðakot, a drug treatment centre working in conjunction with Samhjálp. She, like Rakel, sees many old faces return for treatment.
“We have 20 people in the house right now,” she told us, “Among them, only two are people I’d never seen before. But over the past year, I’d say the number of new faces and the number of those returning are about 50/50.”
Rather than being discouraged by this, Einarsdóttir sees this as a positive sign.
“We’re glad to see people coming back. It shows that they’re trying to get better.”
Einarsdóttir acknowledged that the drug problem in Iceland is growing, with the majority of drug users coming to her for help with hashish and methamphetamines, but she couldn’t speculate why. In terms of effective treatment, she believes the 12-step program of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous is one of the most effective ways to keep people clean and sober, and employs the process not only in the treatment programs she designs, but also in the follow up.
“After someone is released, we strongly encourage them to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. If they’ve been clean and sober for a year after that, we invite them to come back here and work with us as volunteers to help others who used to be in the same situation.”
Rakel told us that she has seen firsthand that intravenous drug use in Iceland is growing, especially in connection with methamphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy. When asked for her thoughts as to why this is, she told us that she felt it lies in the need for some young people to appear “töff,” an Icelandic word that loosely translates as being cool.
“Some of these kids think that when you use a needle, you can demonstrate your defiance in a harder way,” she said. “They see it as a weapon or a tool to show others that you don’t give a fuck. Another thing is, if you get your head into drugs in this country, you’ll discover that there are a lot of drugs in Iceland. They may be expensive, but if you know the right people you can get coke for the same price that you could get hash. The basic problem is an extremely easy access to stimulants like coke, speed and ecstasy.”
To Iceland’s credit, the government takes drug prevention seriously: Hlaðgerðakot enjoys full government funding. Einarsdóttir believes that communication is the answer in fighting Iceland’s drug problem.
“There needs to be more information made available to parents and kids on the dangers of drug use. I think it’s very important that we talk about it more.”
In the end, though, Rakel sees education as the answer to solving Iceland’s drug problem.
“Since most abusers start their drug use in grade school, an effective after-school program would likely have a profound impact. In my case, boredom, loneliness, and shyness were the leading factors making drugs appealing to me. If I had had someone to talk to about these things at the time I might have chosen a different route.”