Norway Wants to Decriminalize Drug Use and Focus on Treatment

An addict smokes heroin in Lamu on November 21, 2014. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Norway started a push to decriminalize drug use this week, when the majority of its parliament moved to focus on treatment for addicted drug users instead of punishment.

"The majority in the parliament has asked the government to prepare for reform," a spokesperson for the Norwegian legislature, the Storting, told Newsweek. "It has started a political process," he said. But he cautioned that "it's just the starting point," and that there's no legislation yet.

The majority wants to "stop punishing people who struggle, but instead give them help and treatment," Nicolas Wilkinson, the SV party's health spokesman in the parliament, told the Norwegian publication VG. He said the effort will focus on treatment and follow-up programs. Members of parliament emphasized that they do not want to legalize drugs, but only to decriminalize.

"The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: Those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and imprisonment," Sveinung Stensland, deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee, told VG.

Some members of parliament are calling it a "historic transformation of Norwegian drug policy." They hope to transfer responsibility for drug policy from the criminal justice system to health agencies.

It's a big next step for the Scandinavian country, which has been dancing around the possibility of decriminalization for several years. In 2006, it started to test a program that would sentence drug users to treatment programs, rather than jail, in the cities Bergen and Oslo. In early 2016, the country gave Norwegian courts the option to do this on a national level.

"The goal is that more addicts will rid themselves of their drug dependency and fewer will return to crime," Justice Minister Anders Anundsen said at the time. "But if the terms of the programme are violated, the convicts must serve an ordinary prison term."

Recently, in March, Norwegian Minister of Health Bent Høie changed his position on the issue of decriminalization, saying that he believed in treatment over punishment, VG reported at the time. But the shift is not a unanimous one: Some members of parliament still believe decriminalization sends a signal to drug users that the offense is not a serious one.

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Portugal famously decriminalized all drugs in 2001 after harsh punishments for drug users did not improve their drug crisis, and it set the precedent for that approach at the national level. Over 15 years, the country has seen a decline in drug use, and especially in drug-induced deaths, Mic reported.