Mika Salminen: Finland’s drug policy needs significant reform – the number of drug-related deaths is a sign of societal failure

Publication date 19 Sep 2022

Mika Salminen
Photo: THL, Aleksi Malinen

Finland’s drugs policy needs a significant overhaul, says Mika Salminen, Director of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. According to Salminen, Finland has had good experiences in past years of policies that do not approve of drugs but which also do not cause further harm to drug users and society as a whole. 

Unfortunately, the latest information shows that Finland tops the list in the EU for drug-related deaths among young people under the age of 25. 

“The increase in drug-related deaths among young people is a sign of the failure of drug policy and of society as a whole. This negative development must be reversed, and it will not happen by itself,” says Salminen.

Salminen believes that Finland is lagging behind many other countries in its drug-related measures. One positive sign, however, is that the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health updated its strategy on substance abuse and addiction in spring 2021, the previous version of which was already several decades old. 

“A strategy on its own is not enough, however. We also need a concrete plan that lists new measures to prevent drug use and harm and defines who is responsible for implementing them,” Salminen continues.

The ways of reducing drug-related harm listed by Salminen include low-threshold health advice clinics, special services for women and minorities, places to obtain clean drug-use equipment, drug consumption rooms, and the distribution of overdose medication and even substance identification to users and their families. 

In addition, he stresses the importance of better care for those who are struggling with a double diagnosis.

“Substance abuse problems are very often related to mental health problems. It is often forgotten that many people with an addiction disease also have other diseases that cause great difficulties for life management.” 

Salminen argues that drug use must be addressed primarily through social welfare and health care services. 

“We must dare to give up on punishing people for drug use, because such actions do not prevent use, but instead only cause people to become even more marginalised. Official resources should instead be used to stop professional crime sales organisations.”

An attitude shift is needed

Salminen emphasises that efforts must be made to prevent drug use and harm both now, as part of the health and social services reform, and also in future government programmes. The expertise of different organisations should also be better utilised in future.

“There is a risk that those suffering from substance abuse and addiction diseases will, as a challenging population group, get left behind in the ongoing social and health care reform. It already appears that thousands fewer clients were referred for treatment during the coronavirus years, although at the same time the indicators were showing a strong increase in drug use.”

According to Salminen, the discussion on intoxicants shows how Finnish society treats its extremely disadvantaged members.

“It seems that attitudes towards the disadvantaged have become harder. Reducing the stigma and discrimination associated with drug use would promote early intervention and self-initiated treatment. This would also be in line with human rights and our fundamental values.”

Regional cooperation is needed to achieve the goals of the health and social services reform

At the beginning of September, Salminen took on a new role as Director of THL’s Department of Public Health and Welfare. Previously, he worked as Director of the Department of Health Security and was responsible for THL’s coronavirus measures. 

A significant part of the work of experts and researchers in the welfare field concerns the health and social services reform. Through this reform, responsibility for organising social welfare, health care and rescue services will shift, as of the start of next year, from municipalities and joint municipal boards to 21 different wellbeing services counties.

THL is working closely with these counties in the development of social and health care services. In addition, THL is researching areas such as financing of health and social services and is also monitoring the impacts of the reform.

“This is a huge change in structures, operating methods and the entire way of thinking – with the primary objective being to improve people’s health and wellbeing,” Salminen explains. 

“When looking at the reform, it is important to remember that the wellbeing of the population is formed primarily in everyday life by the whole community. There will therefore continue to be a need for regional cooperation between the wellbeing services country, municipalities, educational institutions, workplaces and NGOs.”

THL is examining the role of occupational health care

The prevention and treatment of non-occupational diseases in general occupational health care was excluded from the health and social services reform. 

Salminen believes that the status of occupational health care should be investigated, as a fragmented health system does not treat people equally and is expensive in the long term. 

"THL is preparing its own report on the role of the occupational health system within the health and social services system. We will also look at what lessons from this model, which is recommended for both working-age and health care professionals, should be applied more widely in the social welfare and health care system."

Fact file

Mika Salminen (born 1965)
[email protected]
tel. +358 29 524 8454

  • Director of the THL Department of Public Health and Welfare
  • Worked for around 10 years as Director of the Department of Health Security, with responsibilities including THL’s coronavirus measures 
  • Has been involved for many years in drug prevention work and impact evaluation within working groups of both THL and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. In addition, he served as THL’s representative at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), which, under the leadership of Salminen, drew up EU-level recommendations for reducing drug-related harm.
  • Education: Doctor of Philosophy, Docent (Natural Sciences). Management training from Aalto EE and HAUS
  • Hobbies: photography, reading, boating, skiing, travel
  • Motto: Keep your eyes fixed ahead, but don’t completely forget the past.
Alkoholi, tupakka ja riippuvuudet Lapset, nuoret ja perheet Main site Mielenterveys Sote-palvelujen johtaminen drug use - thlfi-en drugs - thlfi-en healthcare - thlfi-en mental health - thlfi-en social care - thlfi-en substances - thlfi-en young people - thlfi-en