Finland - a leading consumer of heroin from the 1930s to the 1950s
By Tommi Nieminen
In 1936 Finland, the small republic led by President P.E. Svinhufvud, ranked first in a significant global statistic, higher even than Japan.
In the two decades that followed, more heroin was used per capita in Finland than anywhere else in the world.
In Northern Europe we were really the odd men out. Finnish heroin consumption was many times higher than that of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland - and just to put that into perspective, we are talking the combined figure of those four countries.
Heroin was in the medicine cabinets of ordinary citizens all the way until the early 1950s - for instance, in the popular cough medicine Pulmo.
It is no wonder that grandmother or grandfather never said anything about this. Heroin was a good medicine.
“The wave of cocaine in Finland in the 1930s, and the amount of heroin consumption in the 1930s, was fairly new and surprising information for myself as well”, said historian Mikko Ylikangas at his office at the Academy of Finland in Sörnäinen.
The 46-year-old Dr. Ylikangas is the programme director at the academy’s Intoxicants and Addiction research programme. On Wednesday, a book of his will be published. It is the first overall review of the use of hard drugs in Finland from the 19th century to the 1950s.
For the book, Ylikangas dug through hospitals’ patient archives, as well as war archives, and the archives of various police units.
What he found was a Finland of our grandparents - the Finland of the Civil War and Second World War generations - in which consumption of substances such as opium, morphine, and heroin was commonplace.
There was recreational use of drugs as well, but very little. Pharmaceutical drugs were used, because times were hard. There was tuberculosis, insomnia, anxiety, and war.
It could be said that Finland was drugged onto the world map.
There was much heroin, but it was a prescription drug. Ylikangas mentions three rational reasons why so much more heroin was used in Finland than in the rest of Europe.
“Heroin was a good medicine for respiratory ailments - and Finland had plenty of them, in connection with a tuberculosis epidemic. Second, it was cheaper than other similar medicines, and third, the social problems linked with abuse of medicines had not got out of control in Finland.”
Heroin was a super-drug of the time of shortages.
Medicines containing heroin were taken by both young and old alike. There were cheap heroin pills, and Pulmona, a cough medicine containing heroin, was consumed heavily, because tuberculosis was a health problem well into the 1950s.
“Getting heroin was childishly simple”, Ylikangas says. “Its use could have got wildly out of hand, although there are fairly short traditions of abuse in Finland. In addition, the substance was contained in various types of mixtures, which were more difficult to abuse.”
The rest of the world looked at Finland with amazement in the 1930s.
The League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN, urged member states to give up heroin, but the Finland of Svinhufvud refused to do so.
According to medical authorities and the Finnish Medical Association, heroin was a cheap medicine, and no reasons were seen to place restrictions on it.
It could not be replaced by other substances.
Therefore, both domestically-produced heroin and imported versions were used.
Local pharmaceuticals firm Orion’s heroin tablets contained five myelograms of heroin. There was also Adapyrine from Sweden, Diffines from Germany, and Hemyphone from Switzerland.
While the rest of the world started to ban hard drugs, Finland repeatedly went against the trend.
After Finland joined the International Opium Treaty in 1936, wholesalers started hoarding goods intensely. Pharmacies filled their storerooms. The Ministry of Defence immediately ordered 1.5 kg. of heroin for its military pharmacies, and 5 kg. of cocaine.
Nevertheless, abuse of heroin and cocaine remained minimal; from the 19th century through the 1950s, the number one drug of Finnish addicts was morphine.
“There are long traditions in the abuse of morphine in Finland, and many were already hooked”, Ylikangas says.
It was only during the war that the use of heroin went ballistic.
But let’s not go to the front lines just yet.
The writing of history is naturally always selective, and always more or less ideologically-based.
Schoolchildren are always told how Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, and other athletes "ran Finland onto the world map" in the 1920s and at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, before the country was even an independent entity.
What has been bypassed is the extent to which the world’s first wave of cocaine-linked crime hit Finland in the 1920s.
In the aftermath of the World War and the Russian Revolution, all kinds of emigrants were operating in Helsinki: Russian nobles and military officers who had lost their money and their power, spies, and smugglers.
The economy was in terrible shape. There was no social security, so people had to find ways of making money.
Some started dealing drugs.
German pharmaceutical companies were on the verge of bankruptcy after the First World War.
To get out of the economic crisis, they sold large amounts of cocaine and morphine to shady characters, who smuggled the goods to St. Petersburg, via Helsinki. There was demand, because there were huge numbers of addicts in the postwar Russia of V.I. Lenin.
“Domestic demand could be satisfied largely by buying it from pharmacies. Then people bought it directly from German ships in the harbour”, Ylikangas says.
Some of the drugs transported on the Germany-St. Petersburg route stayed in Helsinki. Cocaine was available at prohibition era speakeasies, and under the table at restaurants.
“The activities were largely run by doormen. The product that was sold was powdered cocaine”, Ylikangas says.
The drug business was no small matter even compared with today.
In 1925, four kilos of cocaine were found in three police raids in Helsinki.
This is as much as Finnish police and customs authorities seized in 1995-1999.
In Helsinki, small-time drug barons were arrested, such as businessman Tahvo Käppi and a doctor, Kaarlo Kalske, both from Vyborg. They sold drugs by the kilo to Estonia.
Doctors wrote prescriptions for the upper class and cultural figures; before the Winter and Continuation wars, addicts were mainly doctors, nurses, businessmen, artists, lawyers, teachers, and officers.
It was the age of Finnish alcohol prohibition.
Cocaine, for instance, had not been banned.
According to a police report from 1928, drug addition looked like an upper class matter.
Present at a cocaine orgy at the home of Colonel Wennerholm were “the colonel himself, J. Kauppinen, young cadets, and girls. The girls were fed cocaine in oranges and sweets. The base of the thumb was used as a cocaine pit, where cocaine was deposited to be sucked.”
Colonel Wennerholm would actually have been a perfect character for an American crime movie of the 1950s.
Hitler invaded Poland in the autumn of 1939. Josef Stalin's Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States.
Finland responded to the perceived threat of a major war. It began to stockpile hard drugs with vigour.
The Defence Forces signed a contract with the pharmaceutical company Orion, which committed itself to keeping an amount of raw opium in its stockpiles that was equivalent to 150 kilos of pure morphine.
Cocaine, heroin, and morphine were ordered by pharmacies. The medical section of the Defence Staff ordered 50 kilos of morphine and 35 kilos of heroin - enough to produce seven million 5-mg. heroin pills.
The medical officers were still not satisfied: there was not enough of the hard stuff around.
Never mind, for relief was coming.
During the Winter War a ridiculous amount of drugs came to Finland. By the end of 1940, 1,511 kg. of opium alone was delivered to the military pharmacy in Helsinki.
It was supplied mainly by the American Red Cross and the Swedish state. In December 1940 there were 117,000 heroin pills, 469,000 morphine pills, 917 kg. of opium and 351 kg. of morphine.
There was certainly plenty of stuff for the Continuation War, which broke out in the following year.
“It was an interesting time with respect to the substances”, recalls Erik E. Anttinen, Professor Emeritus of social psychiatry.
Anttinen fought during the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the War of Lapland - first in the artillery and - after going to flight school - in the Finnish Air Force.
“Substances qualifying as hard drugs were handed out surprisingly freely, in my opinion. If someone had a cough, he might get dozens of heroin tablets, because it was an efficient cough suppressant”, Anttinen recalls.
Heroin was a wartime panacea, which was used for pain, cough, arthritis, and muscle aches.
Medics carried two ampules of cocaine in their bags, in addition to four ampules of morphine, 30 opium tablets, and 30 heroin tablets. Those on the front line were issued a package of five heroin pills.
Anttinen took heroin “a few times”. He recalls taking Pervitin (a methamphetamine produced by a Berlin pharmaceutical company) only once, in the summer of 1944, when he flew several combat missions a day in the Karelian Isthmus.
Whoa! Methamphetamine in a plane?
“They did tell me that I shouldn’t take too much for a longer period of time”, Anttinen says. “I don’t recall that there would ever have been any plane accidents caused by taking too much Pervitin."
On the front line, strong medicine is needed, especially for the wounded and for commandos.
All the same, Ylikangas was dumbstruck by the amounts of heroin that were consumed by the Finnish military.
During the Continuation War, 7-9 million Antineralgin heroin pills were consumed annually.
“To my knowledge, no country involved in a war had distributed heroin in such large amounts. The use of Pervitin was somewhat more selective”, Ylikangas says.
The German army had sharply curtailed its use of Pervitin already in 1941 because the substance had led to unexpected problems.
Soldiers experienced hallucinations. Some could not sleep, even though “it had been tested with German precision on both animals and people”, Ylikangas says.
Germany unloaded some of its Pervitin stocks in Finland. According to a secret letter of the medical department of the Defence Staff in August 1941, 850,000 Pervitin tablets were stockpiled by the Finnish Defence Forces.
In emergency situations, especially during the big Soviet offensive of 1944, they were used heavily - even by ordinary foot soldiers.
The Continuation War actually quite equalised the use of drugs.
On the front lines, small farmers and factory workers tried drugs that had previously been available only in Helsinki high society. Some got hooked.
After the war, special forces soldiers told about their experiences in the press and in books. One of them recalled an escape that took weeks while under the influence of amphetamines.
Another said that he had seen large buildings, dancing girls, and chandelliers on the front. One dispatch officer mistook snow-covered boulders for sheep.
After the war, in 1946, Helsinki was a restless capital, with plenty of shady people and crime brought on by the war.
There were nearly 15,000 break-ins during one year. There were divorces, violence, and a stumbling economy. Broken soldiers were institutionalised.
Heroin, amphetamines, and morphine had flowed from the front lines onto the street market, and military pharmacies were bulging with the stuff.
Heroin was used and sold in several cafes and restaurants in the cities. Groups of morphine users lurked in the park of Helsinki’s Old Church, outside the Church of St. Paul, and at the Hietaniemi cemetery.
Erik E. Anttinen, who had experienced three wars, studied to be a doctor.
In the summer of 1950 he was recruited to work at the Lapinlahti mental hospital in Helsinki.
“There were addicts from around the country, because it was a clinic of the Medical School of the University of Helsinki. There were especially many abusers of opiates”, Anttinen recalls.
“We tried to give them medicines that might be less addictive. We tried to listen to them and talk to them in order to ease the anxiety phase. Those people would sweat, and be in terrible pain.”
There were differing views on how many of the addicts had been wounded while on the front.
Erkki Jokivartio estimated that at least 60 per cent of the heroin addicts had been wounded. Doctors Achilles Westling and Jaakko Riippa studied the cases of 108 addicts after the war. Of them the dependency of only 14 was caused by treatment that they received for injuries in action.
In police questioning in the early 1950s, the addicts themselves estimated their numbers at about 1,000.
That was two generations ago.
Much less heroin is being used now, but the abuse of other drugs is much more common. In 2005 an estimated 14,000-19,000 people were believed to be hooked on hard drugs. About half of them lived in Helsinki. Three out of four were hooked on amphetamines.
As far away as UN headquarters in New York, people wondered how it was possible that Finland - a country of four million inhabitants - could consume as much heroin in one year in the late 1940s as other countries use on average in a quarter of a century.
In 1946, for instance, 99 kg. of prescription heroin was consumed in Finland.
Finland was not yet a member state of the UN.
Perhaps that is why the response that New York got from Helsinki was somewhat cool.
The message from Helsinki was Finland intended to continue using heroin, and in fact, it would need more than before - for reasons of public health.
What defiance! After all, this was a country which in subsequent decades has always crawled in front of whatever centre of power that happened to be issuing orders.
“That would probably not happen in Finland under the EU. Now directives are immediately implemented”, Ylikangas says.
Under Paasikivi, Finland finally gave in.
Finland wanted to join the UN. When heroin disappeared from the pharmacies in the early 1950s and the availability of morphine came under stricter control, addicts in Helsinki were in a panic.
Some would break into pharmacies. Others would tour rural pharmacies, which would sell hard stuff to those saying that they were war invalids.
Many doctors were also users.
Dr. Ailo Huhtala said in 1955 that about one per cent of Finnish doctors were drug addicts. According to statistics of the Finnish Medical Association, there were 2,381 doctors in Finland. This means that if Huhtala’s estimate was anywhere near the truth, there were 20-30 drug-addicted doctors in Finland.
“Among doctors there was always a tendency to try to deal with problems quietly among themselves”, Ylikangas says. “They were not hauled into police interrogations. At that time, those in high society were treated at home, or they were sent abroad for treatment.”
Ilkka Taipale, doctor and veteran political activist, believes that some of the addicted doctors had been hooked on heroin already during the war.
“One of the doctors who had been in drug rehab later became the director of the Hesperia Hospital.”
Heroin disappeared in the 1950s.
Drug addicts switched to Algidon, a prescription medicine similar to morphine.
“At first it was thought that it would not be addictive, but it was”, Anttinen says.
Algidon is actually a very powerful drug. People would die from abusing it. There were at least eleven sure cases. Some of the addicts of the time might still be alive.
“I know of at least one Algidon addict of the 1950s who is still alive”, Ilkka Taipale says.
He passes on an interview request, but there is no answer.
This is a pity. The request is still open.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.4.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
History: amphetamine overdose in heat of combat (26.5.2002)
TOMMI NIEMINEN / Helsingin Sanomat