Time to think again on narcotics

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The question is when Norway will learn from what other countries have done, maintains Helene Jensvoll, an MSc student in social studies at the University of Stavanger (UiS).

“Norwegian drugs policy is characterised by moral attitudes and emotions rather than scientific knowledge,” she says, and is backed by Svanaug Fjær, addiction researcher at the UiS and head of its social studies department.

The pair have contributed to an EU study on addictions and lifestyles in contemporary Europe, also known as the Alice Rap project.

Their research has focused on the ideas governing narcotics policy, and they have compared Norway with Portugal in this respect.

“The fatal overdose statistics have been a millstone around the necks of the Norwegian government for more than 20 years,” Jensvoll observes.

But the figures for the rest of Europe also make uncomfortable reading. After declining in most EU countries in 2000-03, they shot up again in many of these nations during 2003-09.

Statistics Norway reports that almost 300 Norwegians have died annually in recent years from drug overdoses. Addicts also account for about a third of the record-high prison population, according to Norwegian Correctional Services.

“Norwegian narcotics policy has been based on prohibition and punishment, both for importers and dealers and for users,” observes Jensvoll.

“Portugal has opted to view the problem from a health perspective. By decriminalising the use and possession of drugs, it has achieved a clear reduction in heroin consumption and a sharp decline in deaths from overdoses.”

“This demonstrates that countries which have taken the decriminalisation route have not run into problems, as many people believe,” adds Fjær, and mentions Switzerland as another example.

Jensvoll notes that Portugal also experienced a decline in possession of narcotics among young people following decriminalisation, and fewer became HIV-infected.

At the same time, more addicts received treatment because resources previously devoted to punishment could now be used for prevention and cure. Prison numbers on drug charges were halved.

“Those who believed that decriminalisation would lead to increased use have been proved wrong,” Jensvoll maintains.

“Many feared drug tourism would rise, but that didn’t happen either.”

She and Fjær are accordingly interested to see whether Norway will learn the lessons from the good results achieved in other countries and the findings of international research.

“It’ll be interesting to see what the White Paper on addiction due this autumn has to say,” says Jensvoll, who has studied a number of key documents and reports in both Norway and Portugal.

These include the report of Norway’s Stoltenberg committee in 2010, which advised reducing penalties and called for heroin to be used in treating the most addicted.

Another report in 2011 recommended that young people caught in possession of drugs for the first time should be given the option of a motivational course instead of criminal charges.

Produced by a working party on alternative responses, it also suggested that bigger addicts caught in possession should be let off if they undertook more extensive treatment.

The question of decriminalisation was not on the agenda for this report, Jensvoll observes.

“Nevertheless, it bluntly recommends that discussion and agreements should replace punitive responses in line with the Portuguese concept.

“That means the proposals in these two reports actually represent a form of disguised decriminalisation, and a crucial contribution to changes in Norwegian drugs policy.

“So it’s surprising that they’ve attracted so little attention in the public debate on these issues.”

Text: Silje Stangeland
Translation: Rolf E Gooderham

University of Stavanger, 4036 Stavanger, Norway. Telephone: +47 51 83 10 00, fax: +47 51 83 10 50

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