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Norway Takes First Steps From Extreme Drug War To Sensible Policy

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Note: Norway is one of the most extreme drug war countries where not just possession but use of illegal drugs is a crime. This pushes drug use further into the shadows and results in higher level of harms, including overdose deaths. They are taking an important first step by decriminalizing drug use and recognizing that reducing harm from drug abuse should be the policy goal.

Our interview with Ina Roll Spinnangr, the director of the Association for Safer Drug Policies, the NGO that organised the first Nordic Drug Policy Reform Conference last year.

Drugreporter: You are the leader of a relatively new organisation. How and why did you create this organisation?

Ina Spinnangr: There is a urgent need to reduce harm caused not only by drugs, but by today’s drug policies. Some of our policies actually increase the risk of deaths, crime, problematic use, and drug related problems. The Association for Safer Drug Policies works to change harmful drug policies through grassroots efforts, education, and active engagement with policymakers. Before our organisation was founded there were already a few active user associations, some academics, and older organisations with roots in the temperance movement who dominated the debate. Some of us took part in the public debate, but we did not feel at home in the existing organisations. There was a need for a new association that could embrace more voices from all walks of life.

The Health Committee of the Storting (Norwegian parliament) adopted a note last month in favour of decriminalising drug use. Activists in other countries may be interested in the process leading to this reform: was it a bottom-up movement or the decision of some enlightened politicians?

This was definitely a result of a bottom-up movement. It has had a few strong voices for quite some time, like Arild Knutsen and Thorvald Stoltenberg. Since the beginning of 2016 The Association for Safer Drug Policies has become a strong voice in Norwegian drug policy, and together with the other organisations working for drug policy reform we have been able to shift the centreline of the Norwegian public debate and influence the programs of almost all major political parties, including the party of government. Even though we were certain  changes would come at some point, we didn’t expect our Health Minister from the Conservative party to change his view on decriminalisation as fast as he did. It really takes courage to front new drug policies and to take a new stand in a heated debate like this, like he did.

How repressive were drug policies in Norway before this reform? How the MPs might look to change the repressive policies in the future?

In Norway, use is a crime per se, meaning that you can be punished simply for failing a drug test or admitting to having used in the past. This is different than in most countries, where you must be caught in possession of a drug in order to be punished for personal use. We suspect that this has made Norwegians more secretive about their drug use, which makes early intervention in problematic use more difficult. We’ve also had one of the highest per capita rates of criminal charges for drug offences, with drug offences constituting more than half of all non-misdemeanour crime. Furthermore, suspicion of any involvement with illegal drugs gives police legal grounds to arrest you, search your home and your social media and even wiretap your phone, and use whatever else they find in doing so against you. Serious drug crime also carries some of the most severe penalties in the Norwegian criminal code, and even minor traffickers face substantial time in prison. Decriminalising use and minor possession will help alleviate the taboo on use, and likely limit the extent to which police can incarcerate people and invade their privacy. However, the Devil is in the details, and police will be lobbying to keep tools at their disposal. As for penalties for trafficking, these will have to be addressed separately, and there is a worrying sentiment among some politicians that we should go even harder on dealers and traffickers while decriminalising users. It will be important for organisations like ours to underscore the fact that many of those convicted for dealing and trafficking are also marginalised individuals in desperate situations.

A video report from the Nordic Drug Policy Reform Conference (produced by Tommy Strømmen)

Do you think that decriminalisation is the final step or will this sooner or later lead to a regulated drug market?

Decriminalisation will be an important first step, but we will need to do a lot more to protect our youth from drug use, prevent problematic drug use, overdose death, and all harm caused by drugs.

At the moment the current drug policies make the risk of using drugs higher. Since there is no control over the drug market, people don’t know much about safer use of drugs, and we have not succeeded in reducing the availability. So yes, sooner or later we will hopefully also discuss how the government can gain more control by regulating drugs differently from today.

Norway is known for its high level of overdoses. Why there are so many overdose deaths and what can the government do to prevent them?

We we have a high number of injecting opiate users and repressive policies, and too many users are without substitution treatment. We need to get more people with problematic drug use to treatment, implement harm reduction measures like heroin assisted treatment, and be more engaged in helping people to get better lives – rather than focus on their drug use. There are also many improvements to make before our harm reduction measures can release their potential.

Last year you organised the first Nordic drug policy reform conference. What did you learn from discussions with international colleagues, and what’s the situation in other Nordic countries?

The Nordic countries have been a driving force in the development of international humanitarian law and the promotion of human rights. In the case of drug policy, however, the Nordic ideal of a ‘drug free society’ has created a repressive system, with punishment as its main tool and correspondingly, with one of the highest numbers of overdoses per capita in Europe. Luckily, things are changing. A reform movement is growing, especially in Norway, where politicians are now considering how we can help rather than give users a criminal record. The outcome of the Norwegian model will set the standard for the rest of the Nordic countries. Unfortunately there is also strong voices against reform in Norway, and they might try to make a model where fear of sanctions and other fear tactics are imprinted in the new drug policies.

Do you think that Norway can take the lead in drug policy reform in Scandinavia and change the attitudes of repressive countries like Sweden too?  

Sweden needs an effective community to advocate for changes in drug policy. Unfortunately, the biggest user organisation in Sweden has succumbed to bankruptcy and their web page is down. Currently, there are no real organisations to address issues of progressive drug policy reform in Sweden. We believe we can establish such a group, and we are planning an event about decriminalisation in Stockholm. But we will need all the help we can get, many more members, and more resources to succeed.

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