The Iceland Approach to Juvenile Drug Abuse

By Laura Stack

Pro-marijuana advocates often claim the nation of Iceland has the highest per-capita use of marijuana in the world, based on an old UN report—so much so that the authorities turn a blind eye to it. After all, what else is there to do but get stoned on an icy island with a total population (330,000) lower than some American cities? But like so much “received knowledge” from such sources, the claim simply isn’t true. It wasn’t true even when it was new; the UN report extrapolated incorrectly from a figure provided by the Icelandic government.

Cannabis remains illegal in Iceland, and police will arrest anyone caught using or possessing it. Furthermore, based on recent estimates, only about 6.6% of Icelanders have used marijuana in the past year. That’s similar to rates in Great Britain and most of Europe, and much less than rates in the United States. Usage in South Dakota, the state with the least past-year usage—11.13% in 2018-2019—exceeded the European countries with the highest past-year usage, Spain and France, at 11% during the same period.

The Root of the Problem

There is, however, a germ of truth to the claim of high cannabis use in the thinly-populated Nordic nation. Prior to the mid-1990s, Icelandic youth had a terrible record of alcoholism and drug use. Then the government cracked down on it in a surprisingly progressive way: not just by treating the symptoms, but by striking at the root “causes of causes” that made Icelandic youths seek solace in substance abuse. Now, youth are so involved with their parents and too busy with extracurricular activities to even think about alcohol and drugs.

In 1992, Iceland’s government had the nation’s 14-15 year-olds fill out questionnaires about their drug and alcohol use, how much time they spent with their parents, what they did during that time, and what sort of relationships they had with their parents. The questionnaire was repeated in 1995 and 1997. In addition to discovering that their teens had high levels of substance use (including daily cigarette smoking), they learned that the kids with the fewest problems (a) spent more time with their parents; (b) felt cared about at school; (c) weren’t outdoors at night; and (d) participated in organized activities, especially sports, 3-4 times a week.

Basically, kids who had less of an opportunity to get in trouble were less likely to. Seems like common sense, right?

Iceland then took the revolutionary step of partially reorganizing their society for the betterment of their teens. They made serious efforts to encourage the four factors above, in part by enacting and enforcing a stringent curfew: all teens 13-16 who were unaccompanied by an adult had to be indoors by 10PM in winter and midnight in summer. New laws made it illegal to buy tobacco under age 18 and alcohol under age 20, with alcohol sold only in state-run stores under high taxation. They also banned alcohol advertising, and no longer allowed alcohol manufacturers to sponsor sports teams.

Meanwhile, the Icelandic equivalent of the PTA, Home and School, drafted agreements for parents of young teens to sign. Although the agreements weren’t legally binding, the recommendations included no longer allowing teens to have unsupervised parties, not buying alcohol for them, and keeping an eye on the well-being of other children. This built the expectation on both sides of the age divide that parents would spend more time with their kids.

The Icelandic government also coughed up annual funding, for each child, to pay for extracurricular recreational activities—sports, music, dancing, art, and various school clubs. The idea was to offer new ways for teens to become part of a group and feel good about it. In Reykjavik, for example, the amount provided came to $300-$350 per teen.

The program went into effect in 1997, and the results proved nothing less than remarkable.

A Steady Drop

Today, the program has been in place for over 20 years, but by 2014, it was already drawing international attention. Past-month teen drinking had plunged from 42% to 5%. Daily smoking had dropped to 3%. Lifetime marijuana use fell from 17% to 7%. In 2014, 42% of the target group participated in sports, versus 23% in 1998. Fifty percent reported spending “considerable time” with their parents, and only 23% ever stayed out late, as opposed to 53% in 1998.

Iceland still has problems with teen substance abuse, but cutting these categories by more than half, and in some cases close to 90%, has made a huge difference in terms of individual, family, and social health. Investing in their teens has paid enormous social dividends and hasn’t cost much more than a few hundred dollars per child and a commitment by parents to spend more time with their kids. 

Who know all it took was giving their teens something they’d rather do than be bad?

Implementing the Icelandic Approach Elsewhere

The success of the Icelandic approach has led to its exportation to dozens of other countries and municipalities across the world. The experiment is still too new to know whether it will work as well in these locations. There may be cultural and religious differences in some nations that limit its success. A lack of political resolve could also forestall success at Iceland’s level.

Also, implementing this approach in nations or regions with higher populations than Iceland may not work, simply due to the need to develop and maintain the infrastructure and pay for the extracurricular activities. Parents would also have to get onboard in droves.

In the U.S., our tradition of independence, coupled with the time it can take to succeed in one’s career, may hinder getting parents to sign on. Plus, all states (and some territories) have populations far exceeding Iceland’s. The cost of implementing an annual payment to families for their children’s extracurricular activities might require a bigger tax bite, something many Americans would fight.

This doesn’t mean individual schools, coalitions, counties, municipalities, towns, and cities, can’t take the lead in implementing the Icelandic approach to save their future. I believe it could work well, especially for less-populous counties. This assumes, of course, the political resolve exists for it to occur, at a time when Americans are preoccupied with so many other issues, major and minor. That may prove the greatest obstacle to making this work: not expense, but the willingness to take the responsibility and just do it. If nothing else, it may require some sharp shock for it ever to happen here. We hope we don’t lose many generations to today’s high-potency marijuana use like Johnny before we wake up.

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