The Norwegian Government’s Proposal for Drug Policy Reform: Support, Don’t Punish

Drugreporter february 22, 2021:

The Norwegian government presented its plan to decriminalise drug use last week – read this report from Arild Knutsen, a leading drug user activist. 

On Friday, February 19, the minister for health and care, Bent Høie, and the minister for education and integration, Guri Melby, held a press conference where they presented the Norwegian government’s proposition for drug policy reform.

The government proposes that the use and possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use shall no longer be a criminal offence. Instead of criminalisation, people who are caught with illegal drugs will be obliged to appear before a municipal advisory unit. There, they will receive information about the health risks associated with drug use, and they will be offered help if they think they need it.

The production and supply of drugs will continue to be prohibited, but small quantities of drugs for personal use will no longer be punished. This applies to the purchase, use, possession, and storage of a small amount of drugs.

“We will provide help, treatment, and follow-up. Punishment contributes to stigma and social exclusion. Many also do not dare to ask for help for their problems because of fear of being punished. Now we are lowering the threshold for getting help and giving help”, said Høie.

The importation, manufacture, and sale of drugs will continue to be prosecuted in the same way as it is currently. The same applies to storage above threshold values. All drugs are to be seized, regardless of quantity.

The police will continue to uncover drug use and possession, and the police will have the authority to search people.

Heroin: 2 grams
Cocaine: 2 grams
Amphetamine: 2 grams
GHB, GBL and 1,4-butandiol: 0.5 dl
MDMA: 0.5 grams
Cannabis: 10 grams
Khat: 500 grams
Prescription drugs: 15 tablets

Guri Melby is the leader of the Liberals and minister for education and integration. She gave the first speech at the press conference:

“I am pleased to be able to present the most important social political reform in our time: The government’s drug policy reform. As the Liberal Party’s leader, I stand here with pride and not a little reverence. We have been fighting for a more humane drug policy for decades now. In this government, we are making it happen.

Around you you see the photo exhibition ‘Punishment Damages’. It is apt for the whole basis of this reform.

Decades of punishment have painfully taught us that punishment does not work. On the contrary, punishment can make things worse. It can make it more difficult for those with substance abuse problems to seek help. This can make it more difficult for relatives to detect drug problems. And it contributes to the stigma and rejection of a vulnerable group.

We will no longer stand by and watch people be humiliated and called criminals when they are sick. We will no longer base Norwegian drug policy on what we “feel and believe” will happen if we change the measures. It is those who are against today’s proposal who have the burden of proof against them. The coming debate must take that to consideration.
 
It is quite obvious that sick people should receive treatment and not punishment, but it has taken time to get there. In the meantime, it has been expensive. Prosecution of drug addicts has had major harmful consequences – both intentional and unintentional – for an incredible number of people and all their relatives.
 
Punishment in drug policy also has a socially skewed effect, which in turn has maintained and reinforced exclusion for marginalised groups. It affects young people who are already having difficulties to a far greater extent than others. Children of low-educated parents are seven times more likely to be punished for cannabis use than children of high-educated parents, even though twice as many children of high-educated parents use cannabis.

The stigma attached to drug addicts through decades of criminalisation is also important for the population’s view, this is beyond doubt. Reducing stigma is therefore a fundamental starting point for the government’s drug policy reform.
 
And the research and knowledge are with us. From international research, it is well documented that criminalisation of drug use can constitute a significant barrier for drug addicts to seek help services. We see this realisation from a number of countries.

The best-known example is the drug reform in Portugal, which decriminalised the use and possession of drugs for personal use through an amendment to the law as early as 2000, but also countries such as Canada and Iceland are now discussing this issue.
 
Common to the development of these countries is the de- or down-criminalisation of the use and possession of drugs for personal use, and the goal of reducing stigma and strengthening the health and human rights perspective has been prominent.

Abolition of criminal liability for use and possession for personal use has received broad international support. It is now recommended by international expertise and by UN agencies such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and UNAIDS to name a few.
 
Back in Norway, the goal of a drug-free society ended with the government’s action plan back in 2003, when Odd Einar Dørum from the Liberal Party was Minister of Justice. Back then, the vision of a drug-free society was abandoned in favour of a more appropriate and realistic goal – to reduce the negative consequences of drug use.

The idea that punishment for the use of drugs is neither appropriate nor legitimate is also not new. Abolishing criminal liability for drug use was proposed both by the Criminal Law Commission in 2002 and by the Stoltenberg Committee in 2010.
 
For decades, committees and parties have been in motion, but not least, new user groups have come on the scene and pushed the debate forward and helped to change people’s attitudes. Like Arild Knutsen from the Association for Humane Drug Policy and Kenneth Arctander Johansen from the drug user organisation RIO.

The drug user organizations have demanded:

• To be listened to.

• That human rights must form the basis of all drug policies

• That the use and possession of drugs for one’s own use is completely decriminalised, without penalties being replaced by new and intrusive sanctions.

It is no secret that the Liberal Party has for many years been out early with measures to make substance abuse care in Norway more humane. Whether it is a small but important investment, such as a court program, the low threshold substitution or a 24-hour treatment guarantee. When Ola Elvestuen proposed heroin assisted treatment in 2007, it was almost laughed at. People often laugh at things they do not understand, whether it is through ignorance or lack of understanding. But today it is the government’s policy.

The foundation for today’s reform has been laid by many clear and strong voices that have not held back even when criticism has hailed, and prejudices have been significant. As Liberal leader, I am proud that our struggle for a better drug policy over the last twenty years is becoming a reality. Drug addicts shall now be offered help, not punishment.”

Bent Høie:

“So this is the proposition from the government. We abolish criminal liability for the use and possession of small quantities of drugs for our own use.

This means that it is still banned – but that it is no longer punishable.

All other drug dealing will be punishable and will be prosecuted in the same way as today.

The police will continue to uncover the use, purchase, and storage of narcotic drugs, and will be allowed to visitate people when they suspect this.

The police will still have access to seize drugs – regardless of quantity.

With the drug reform, the police thus retain many of the tools they have. In addition, they – and the health service – get a whole lot of new tools.

The police must be able to order a person who is arrested with drugs for their own use to appear before a municipal advisory unit.

This unit will inform about the harmful effects of using drugs and offer to help with a consideration of the persons situation, follow-up, and health care.

If the person who is to attend the unit is under 18 years of age, the parents will usually also be required to attend.

Through the duty to attend the municipal unit, we signal that it is still forbidden to use drugs – but ensure that the health service comes into contact with the person who has been arrested and is given advice and offers of help.

It is the municipalities that will be obliged to establish such advisory units for drug cases, and which will be responsible for calling in those whom the police have given a duty to attend.

There will thus be a duty to show up – but no duty to receive help.

This is in accordance with the principle that all health care must, as a general rule, be based on consent.

Those who do not show up at the municipal unit can be charged a fee of around 240 Euro.

Discretion shall be used here. The fee shall not be given to persons whose finances or life situation make it unreasonably burdensome.

It should not be used against drug addicts so that they get the same burden as today’s fines represent.

The purpose is to maintain respect for the duty to attend.

We currently have such fees for non-attendance at outpatient hours in the specialist health service. They are also not given to people who are in difficult life situations or who have mental challenges that make it difficult to meet.

The drug counseling unit will go to great lengths to get in touch with the person being referred, such as meeting people at home if they wish.

And they shall meet each other at the same eye height, the same level.

Some believe that the threat of punishment or various types of coercion is important in capturing young people who are on their way to drug addiction.

I disagree with that.

I believe young people can be motivated to change without coercion or threats of punishment. No one wants to be addicted to drugs.

It will be easier for many young people to seek help when they do not have to fear punishment, fines, or a criminal record.

The police’s drug prevention work towards young people will continue.

The child welfare service will continue to catch and follow up vulnerable children and young people.

The health service’s preventive work through school health services and health stations will continue.

We have focused on prevention and early intervention aimed at children and young people every single year in government. This commitment continues.

The school health service and the health stations have been strengthened by NOK 1.3 billion. We have provided for many more psychologists in the municipalities and that more are offered quick mental health care.

Through the escalation plan for children and young people’s mental health, we further develop and strengthen the services for young people with substance abuse problems.

We have also upgraded the municipalities’ services for people with substance abuse problems and mental health problems through the escalation plan in the field of substance abuse.

It has contributed to 2600 new man-years since 2016.

These are professionals who will not only work with treatment, but also help with housing, school, work and activities.

We have also set up several outreach teams, which follow up people with substance abuse and mental disorders where they live.

The capacity and competence in interdisciplinary specialised drug treatment at the hospitals has increased. The waiting time has decreased.

The government wants to continue to strengthen both prevention, treatment and follow-up services as a follow-up to the reform.


Where should the line be placed to escape punishment?

Here we must set threshold values that indicate what quantity of drugs a person can buy or possess without being punished.

That is a difficult question.

On the one hand, we must not set the threshold values so low that those who suffer from drug addiction will still be punished because they are caught with higher doses for their own use.

On the other hand, we must not set the thresholds so high that sellers can adapt to them and avoid punishment, or that drugs become more accessible to young people.

The government has therefore chosen to set the threshold values significantly lower than what the drug reform committee proposed.

In order to prevent this from affecting people who struggle with heavy drug addiction, the police must, as a general rule, grant a waiver of prosecution if the drug is for their own use, even if it should exceed the threshold value. The failure to prosecute may entail a duty to attend the advisory unit for drug cases.

The table showing threshold values for impunity is reproduced in the press release and the bill.

A person can possess three different drugs at the same time, without being punished. We suggest this because many people who are addicted to drugs use several drugs. The drug reform committee has not proposed such a limit, but we believe it is important to ensure that those who sell cannot take advantage of the changes.

The drug policy reform we are presenting today contains several legislative changes.

It would not have been possible without changes in attitudes.

Such changes cannot be promoted by governments or adopted by national assemblies.

Our attitudes change because someone dares to ask new questions and dares to come up with new answers.

They change because brave people dare to stand up in the square and shout something that makes people stop and think.

Thorvald Stoltenberg and his daughter Nini Stoltenberg did this at a time when drug addiction was both shameful and confidential.

Nini Stoltenberg stood up and told how the shame led to her hiding from everything and everyone and refraining from seeking help even though she was seriously ill.

Thorvald Stoltenberg dared to think anew when he led the committee that advocated a more humane drug policy, and which wanted to replace punishment with help.

The time was not ripe then.

I hope it is now.

Now I would like to thank two people who have a large part of the credit for us today being able to present this historic reform.

One is Arild Knutsen.

Arild has stood in the square and shouted that we must treat society’s most tired and vulnerable people with respect and dignity in order to help them.

He has been doing this for many years and has never given up.

Dear Arild. We passed by and saw another way for many years.

It took way too long before we stopped and listened to what you said.

But we did it in the end, and then we understood that you were right.

Thank you so much for never giving up!

The other person I would like to thank is Kenneth Arctander, who in many ways has taken Arild’s work further.

Kenneth has participated in the drug reform committee on which this reform is based. He has been diplomatic when needed and unwavering when needed. Thank you so much for the important work you have done, Kenneth!

There are many who have made a great and important effort so that the time was finally ripe to present this reform and replace punishment with help.

You have helped to change attitudes.

Now you are helping to change history.

Thank you very much.”

Read the article at Drugreporter here.

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