The past few weeks have been… quite intense. Long story short (beware of national politics): My home country Sweden has the most restrictive drug laws in the Western World. Since preschool, I’ve been (unsuccessfully) brainwashed with “smoke weed and you will soon be injecting heroin”, official police statements such as “it is our mission to make life for junkies a living hell” and “there is no distinction between soft and hard drugs – all drugs are equally and incredibly dangerous.” There has been no real debate. Until just recently, when scholars have finally been able to speak their minds, without fear of indirect rejection or reprisal. In my humble opinion, the Swedish system is highly dysfunctional.

In Sweden and other European countries, we are currently plagued with an epidemic of young adults using “spice,” which is the colloquial name in use here, like it or not, for synthetic cannabinoids. During 2014 alone, we have seen around 15 Swedish young adults overdose and die after using not yet classified substances. They did not commit a crime, but they died. It is extraordinary tragic and totally unacceptable.


What really set me off was this op-ed authored by a renowned Professor, which was published in one our major national newspapers Svenska Dagbladet (SvD). His mastermind conclusion is that… well, read below. (Sorry for not having the time to translate the original article.) I got so damn angry I was up all night writing a suitable response.

Frankly, I am somewhat surprised my retort was published in the first place, given the circumstances, and I had no idea how much action it would yield. My article was on the top five list of most shared articles on Facebook for over a week. I still have hundreds of unread emails. What I certainly did not expect was that each and everyone who has contacted me take my side. I have medical doctors, attorneys, judges, social workers and even police officers expressing their gratitude. There may be hope for this country after all. Enough said, find below my public retort translated into English (original here).



Addiction researcher Fred Nyberg proclaims that the global cannabis legalization wave “paves the road for spice” (SvD Brännpunkt 3/11). His way of reasoning is seriously flawed.

In Sweden, penalties for narcotic crimes are very severe, even in comparison with the gravest of violent crimes, murder included. The nature of the hard Swedish line is presumably just; society and its citizens shall with legal and political means be protected from the dangers associated with the use of intoxicants other than alcohol, coffee and tobacco.

However, facts have shown otherwise; after decades of clinging to the hard line the outcome has been devastating for both society and its citizens. Sweden stands out today, most unflatteringly, as a country with an exceptionally high mortality rate amid drug users, especially amongst our young adults. It is alarming. From this point on, in order to save not only our reputation but health and lives, it is imperative that society acts swiftly and rationally, putting aside all pride. Fighting to the last man in order to preserve the institutionalized Swedish line is both counterproductive and cynical.

Most facts Professor Fred Nyberg put forward regarding new drugs are correct. The most important aspect is that during this year alone many Swedish adolescents have put their own lives at stake to experiment with these new and unexplored drugs; drugs that are not yet formally classified. On this point we completely agree.

However, when Nyberg states that the cannabis legalization wave “paves the road for spice” he traps himself in a classic logical fallacy, and with it his reasoning falls to pieces like a house of cards. If his assumptions were correct, we would observe in the most drug liberal societies a substantial interest in and use of not yet classified substances. As a matter of fact, we are witnessing the exact opposite. In the American state of Colorado, which has legalized both medicinal and recreational use of cannabis, there exists no demand for spice. In restrictive Sweden the demand is very high.

The explanation as to why spice and other as yet unclassified intoxicants have had such an impact in Sweden over the recent few years is much more simple: the intake of these new compounds is not a criminal act. I seem to share this explanatory model with Magnus Callymyr (SvD Brännpunkt 6/11).

Swedish penalties are so severe that when given the choice between committing a crime such as using cannabis or remaining within the realm of the law and using new drugs, a frightening number of adolescents opt for the latter. This, despite the evident truth that spice is potentially lethal while the use of cannabis is not.

From my perspective as a drug discovery researcher, today’s situation is absurd and relentless. Cannabis is, despite official Swedish claims, one of few known intoxicants you cannot overdose on, and when compared to some of our most common medicines, is incredibly safe to use. If we as representatives for the establishment are not completely honest about this, we lose all credibility in the debate. I am, however, afraid that the damage has already been made. Young people today have by all right an outstandingly low confidence in drug information provided by Swedish authorities.

Humans’ intrinsic yearning for altered states of mind defies law and regulation, in every society, at every given time. Sweden has lost the war on drugs. The time is ripe to swallow our pride and humbly proclaim defeat. It would be devastating to continue such a pointless battle.

Factual information based on evidence and experience saves lives. Decriminalization of the use of drugs saves lives. We could keep on bickering about this until the end of time, while the luckiest victims of these laws are stigmatized and marginalized, and the less fortunate suffer and die. Alternatively, we can work together to fundamentally transform the Swedish system into something much better.

Play with the thought that the use of cannabis has been decriminalized in Sweden today. Would it be that horrible? What we have learned from countries at the forefront of drug policy research, with a more liberal attitude towards cannabis (several of these are European Union countries), is that there is no notable increase in overall drug use, and that enormous economic resources are liberated from the police, the legal system, and the prisons. Moreover, we would pull the rug out from under international organized crime, which today supplies cannabis, and those who act in the legal gray area by providing spice and other potentially deadly substances.

The responsibility to minimize suffering among users and addicts from all walks of life and all corners of our country rests on our shoulders. That a renowned Professor and author in the field tarnishes his credibility by using tabloid phrases such as “death drugs” surprises me a great deal. Other countries have already significantly decreased the number of drug related deaths while successfully keeping the overall national drug consumption down. Those who neither address the scientific facts nor endeavor to take great pain to learn from them can only be described as being willfully blind.

Ph.D. in organic chemistry, medicinal chemist, presently CEO at research company Arubedo AB


Your comments?


20 Responses to Synthetic cannabinoids, “research chemicals” and the war on drugs

  1. Piotr Rafalski says:

    Inconsistence of your article has prompted me to write a commentary about Cannabis sativa or, should I say cannabinoids.

    Cannabinoids are NOT in any meaning A SAFE SUBSTANCES. They exhibit a high level of biological acitivity even when used in very low doses. Many scientific studies have proven that these compounds are neurotoxic, especially in children and teens. They also affect the number and motility of sperm cells which could lead to partial infertility of men.

    Cannabinoids impair learning, memory consolidation and thus make their users susceptible to manipulation and influence of other persons. IMHO that is the worst problem, because under influence of cannabinoids people often act in a way, which is prohibited, punishable by law or simply unwise. I dont think that society is really ready to legalise such substances, only because some people want to have some fun.

    You should remember, that the idea of legalisation of cannabinoids came not from health specialists, but from politicians. Politicians always think about votes, not voters. This dilemma cannot be solved by pharmacologist. I would rather ask a sociologist or even psychologist, about freedom, responsibility and so on.

    I also dont buy an argument, that people are fully resposible for their actions, so they should have access to every thing such as abused substances, medicaments, firearms etc. The main reason of restrictions is safety of whole society, not limitation of individual freedom.

    Last words about “spice” – the law is always too slow, and because of that posessing and using new substances is not a criminal act. The same situation has been in Poland for couple of years. Many shops, mostly owned by the same person have sold “collectible items” containing psychoactive benzylpiperidine compounds called boosters/speeders (in polish: “dopalacze”). Pharmacological activity of these substances was similar to psychostimulant-psychomimetics such as MDMA. Benzylpiperidine compounds were legal, they werent prohibited by the law. Of course one could say, that these “collectible items” werent mean to be used as drugs of abuse …

    I appologise for my bad english.

    Peter Rafalski
    Pharm. Master, Ph.D. in Pharmacology

  2. drfreddy says:

    I have never said that cannabis is perfectly safe, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to smoke weed. Or use aspirin for that matter.

    Each and every substance is toxic in some way or the other, including water. As a researcher in the field of medicinal chemistry, I feel absolutely confident stating that cannabis is safer to use than many of the most common medicines.

    There is still not one confirmed lethal overdose on cannabis alone, in the entire course of scientific history. There are numerous deaths in our small country this year alone, from the use of synthetic cannabinoids.

    It is hard for me to think of a more obvious case than this, where implementing so called harm reduction would save lives.

  3. Someone says:

    That article was the best Ive ever read in a swedish newspaper.
    I wish more swedes were like you Fredrik!

  4. milkshake says:

    1. Overdose with cannabis is actually quite common with oral ingestion (brownies, etc) – first, it is hard to estimate the potency, second, inexperienced users tend to be disappointed when nothing is happening in few minutes, so they take more, and when the effects set in they have a bad OD trip. Cannabis edibles – related overdose emergencies are also a problem with small children and dogs. These things need to be kept out of reach at home.
    2. The results of canabis legalisation and regulation have been very positive so far whereas war on drugs has been an overwhelming failure. More than half of all inmates in US prisons are there on drug related offenses, in many cases nonviolent
    3. What happened with cannabis (quasi-legal highly harmful synthetic substitutes) is also common problem with MDMA – most of the “molly” sold in dance clubs and on concerts are actually far more dangerous substances, responsible for malignant hyperthemia deaths and nasty long-lasting psychotic episodes.

    • drfreddy says:

      1. I meant “lethal overdose” in my op-ed. Too bad they aren’t peer-reviewed… Of course you can have too much weed and feel horrible for many hours, but THC alone will never kill you.

      2. Yes.

      3. Yes.

  5. milkshake says:

    there is suddenly plenty of new fentanyl analogs on the street, misbranded as smack, based on ER toxicology OD reports. I think shady little companies in China, after establishing themselves first in qasilegal cannabinoid synthetics business, will sooner or later look into more lucrative superpotent opiods and phenethylamines, with predictable consequences

  6. Morgaine says:

    Thank you a lot for your article. As an Italian living in Sweden, I was also surprised about the apocaliptic attitude of Swedish society regarding cannabis consumption.
    In my home country it is very common to occasionally smoke cannabis for recreational purposes. I can say that the most of my friends during university time did it without becoming heavily intoxicated or drug addicted.
    I used it also, in very small amounts, as a very effective painkiller when having dysmenorrhoea, and I can say that cannabis was far more effective and quick than the most common over-the-counter pain medication.
    Being now a chemist researcher within neuroscience, I can agree with Dr. Rafalsky above about the dangers of consumption during teenage, since it is a critical time for neurological development.
    However, I would regard cannabis consumption as alcohol consumption, with moreless the same restrictions (minimum age, no smoking and drive), but also without the demonization done right now in the Swedish society.

  7. milkshake says:

    I wonder if you have heard of this rather nasty complication, in long-term regular cannabis users

  8. siobhan says:

    Hi Fredrik thanks for putting yourself out there. I am not Swedish I have lived here now for 18 years. I am now suffering from Chronic pain yet to be give the official name of Fibromyalgia. The medical community know very little about this however they are quick to recommend Antidepressants and other strong medicines which have many bad side effects… how do I know I have some years ago had them prescribed and ended up in Hospital have my stomach pumped. as I lost my own ability to feel my own emotions and ended up no longer wanting to be part of this repressed society. However I am still here and I know that natural Cannabis helps me… I go to Holland as much as I can for the Cannabis oil illegal here in Sweden… I am not a criminal and have never been in trouble with the law… But now I would be classed as a Criminal in Sweden all for wanting to relieve pain increase my appetite and help me sleep. But repressed Sweden it seems has no intention to even look into the benefits of cannabinoids for patients. Instead the focus is how bad it is. For those of you out there who wish to Criticise me for my views unless you have any of this Chronic pain disease I am really not interested in your opinions For a nation who needs to have snaps every holiday I suggest you look close at the damage this causes…..

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    • Greg Bradshaw says:

      Phoenix tears, if properly made, are a fantastic product. They should sell themselves. Throwing in dubious unsupported medical phenomenon only creates doubt in a buyers mind. I am happy for your Mom though the tears likely provided some anxiolytic benefit in a diffcult time I am quite skeptical they were soley responsible for your mothers glorious medical ressurection as you claim. Without a controlled double blind study your claims will remain on the dubious pile. That’s just good science.

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