What Norway actually changed in its drug policy?

World media is talking about Norway´s new drug policy as something that could be a positive example for the rest of the world. What exactly Norway changed in its approach to drugs and drug users, we asked from Stig Erik Sørheim from Actis, the Norwegian Policy Network on Alcohol and Drugs.

Lauri Beekmann: Would you explain in simple terms, what Norway recently changed in its drug policy?

Stig Erik Sørheim: The Parliament decided to move the responsibility for sanctions for use and personal possession of illicit drugs from the justice sector to the health sector. The thinking behind this is that drug use is primarily a health issue, and a concern for heavy users who are burdened with fines that they cannot pay for behaviour that is closely linked to their drug addiction.

The Minister of Health has appointed a commission to look into how this can be implemented. The commission will submit its report by 31 December 2019, and the final details will be negotiated in Parliament in 2020. So far no changes have been made.

Since the health sector cannot punish people, this essentially means that drug use and possession will be decriminalized. Drug use will remain illegal, but the sanctions will be administrative rather than judicial.

How this will be implemented and what sanctions will be available, are among the things the appointed commission will discuss, so we do not know the result yet.

However, the commission was asked to look specifically at the Portuguese model. The Portuguese have decriminalised drug use, and those caught with drugs are sent to a “dissuasion commission”. These commissions have a wide variety of tools at their hands – at least in theory – from treatment to administrative fines to travel restrictions, although most cases are dismissed after an initial interview.

More focus on treatment means what? Norway did offer treatment before as well, didn´t it?

Norway already has invested considerable resources in treatment, and there is currently no real waiting lists to get into treatment. Treatment is already an option for people convicted of drug-related and other crimes as an alternative to penal sanctions. In addition there is a wide range of low-threshold services and harm reduction measures, ranging from free clinics to injection rooms. The drug policy change is not accompanied by any money, so it is difficult to see how access to treatment will be significantly changed. In theory, the new system may channel more users into the treatment system. However, users need to be motivated to go into treatment, and if they are motivated they can access treatment even today.

Does any of it concern you? Can that change be seen as a route to legalisation?

There are two main concerns. One is that decriminalisation will send a signal to young people that drug use is relatively safe and acceptable and the other is that some police methods to catch the big players in the drug market may be weakened. Most studies on the effects of decriminalisation don’t find a strong link to increases in consumption. There may be several explanations for this, and there may be different subgroup effects. However, in our case, the move to decriminalization has been combined with a very loud social debate on cannabis and drug legalization in addition. Some people who work with youth report back that young people seem to think that drug use is legal and not very harmful, at least less harmful than alcohol.

From the police’s perspective, investigations of sales networks often begin with interrogations and checks of mobile phone logs. Some of these methods may become limited once drug use is no longer a punishable offence. This may make it more difficult to get to the kingpins of the illicit drugs market. However, some argue that it will be easier to communicate with users once the threat of punishment is removed.

Decriminalization can certainly be seen as a step towards legalization, and some NGOs are pushing for a very wide interpretation of “possession for personal use”. However, decriminalization can also be seen as a bulwark against legalization because it addresses some of the legitimate concerns about the criminalization of a marginalized group of heavy users.

I read that The Norwegian Health Committee planned a trip to Portugal last February to learn some lessons? As you know the Portugal situation, is there anything to learn from them?

Several Norwegian delegations have visited Portugal in the past year, including a group from Actis. It is interesting to see the different elements of the Portuguese model, but frankly, many of these measures are already in place in Norway, such as prevention, substitution treatment, needle and syringe programmes, outreach work etc. The Portuguese highlight the shift from justice to health. This is a slogan for the Norwegian reform as well, although I would argue that health has long been a key part of the Norwegian approach to drugs. The dissuasion commissions are interesting, but we already have several similar programmes in place, especially for young people, and any Norwegian adaptation of the Portuguese model will have to be suited to the Norwegian system.

Looking now also to Canada, is that train leaving the station? Will other countries follow?

Cannabis legalization in Canada is a significant step in the direction of legalization. It is the first time a major country clearly violates the drug policy conventions. Canada claims to take a health approach to legalization, but at the same time, it will have to contend with the same challenges from a dynamic legal cannabis market that we have seen in the US. The precedence that Canada sets will undoubtedly make it easier for other countries to follow, and this threatens to undermine the global collaboration to address the world drug problem.

What would you recommend, from Norway´s experience now, for other countries in our region? If anything.

I think the debate on how to sanction drug use and personal possession will continue. In Norway, we have already made significant changes over the past two decades, and in this context, decriminalization is perhaps not such a big step, at least in practical terms. Very few people – if any – are in prison for drug use/possession alone. Young people don’t get a criminal record the first times they are caught, there are several alternatives to punishment, including special youth programmes, drug courts and treatment instead of prison. I would have liked to see a more comprehensive discussion about the possibilities and challenges of current policy and a thorough analysis of what needs to change, rather than just jumping to the conclusion that decriminalisation is the solution.

Where is Norway going from here? Are there any new plans to take drug policy further?

The Health Minister has been very clear that he does not favour legalization of drugs, and the major parties have rejected legalization so far. However, many of the youth parties have voted to allow legal sales of some – or all – drugs. Norway has also opened up for a “trial” of Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT), and we can expect a push to allow more drug types in substitution treatment, such as benzodiazepines.