A version of this article was originally published by drugfoundation.org.nz
On the morning of the 5th of October, 2016, Norwegians were left choking on their muesli. In an article in the tabloid newspaper Dagbladet, the government's Conservative Party Health Minister Bent Høie confessed to a complete change of heart on drug policy: Norway should ditch its overly punitive regime to something akin to Portuguese decriminalisation.
It was a thunderbolt out of the blue because, until then, Høie and Norway’s right-wing coalition government had shown little sign of veering off-piste from the uncompromising approach typical of Nordic drug law.
In the article, headlined "Help, don't punish drug users", Høie admitted the 48m kroner (£5.7 million) in drug possession fines paid out by Norwegians in the previous five years were "detrimental and meaningless", and had done more harm than good to both people who use drugs and society. Inspired by the situation in Portugal, Høie declared that drug use should be a matter for health services, not the justice sector.
Høie's U-turn set in motion a vehicle of change that could – even though the D-word has generally been avoided by the government – end with Norway becoming one more among a select group of countries to decriminalise drug possession.
Before the Dagbladet article, only the Greens and the Liberal Party endorsed a policy based around decriminalisation. By the eve of last year's elections, eager to jump on the drug reform bandwagon, seven out of the nine main parties backed Høie's intent. Last December, the Norwegian Parliament’s Health Committee voted to prepare reform to ensure that "the responsibility of society’s reaction to the use and possession of illegal drugs is transferred from the justice sector to the health sector".
The committee appointed a working group with a mandate to examine how best to shift drug use from a criminal to a health matter and, specifically, to evaluate whether the Portuguese model is appropriate for Norway. Headed by one of the country's chief prosecutors and consisting of people from drug user NGOs and the fields of health and justice from across Norway, the working group is due to report back in December of 2019. Legalisation is not on the table.
The move towards decriminalisation is a big deal for Norway, but as the world watches, it could also prove a very modern lesson in how drug reform actually happens, and perhaps be instrumental in inspiring other countries to ditch their old drug war rags and follow the same route.
Europe's northernmost country, Norway is best known for its seafaring history, dramatic mountains and fjords – and for consistently getting "nul points" in the Eurovision song contest. Drug use rates are low according to government statistics, but snapshot research among clubbers, and wastewater analysis in the cosmopolitan capital Oslo, has found higher than expected levels of MDMA, amphetamine and methamphetamine use.
Norway is a progressive, flagship democracy, and one of the richest countries on the planet. It has one of the world’s highest standards of living for its 5 million citizens, strong egalitarian and humanitarian ideals and a top-notch welfare and health system – which makes it all the more surprising that it has one of the most repressive drug policy systems and highest drug death rates in Europe. It is this anomaly, experts think, that has led to Norway’s volte-face on drug policy.
Norway is one of only a handful of countries where drug use, rather than just possession, is a crime. This means police can stop and search people or their homes if there is the merest suspicion of drug use. Suspects who appear intoxicated can be detained and forced to urinate under observation for traces of drugs. Failing a drug test can lead to a fine of up to £880, withdrawal of a driving licence and, for parents, the involvement of childcare services. The use of drug sniffer dogs in schools and urine "contracts" for teenagers caught smoking cannabis have also caused controversy.
Most contentious, though, is the way the country’s 12,000 injecting drug users have been treated. Even though there are provisions in place for substitute prescribing, safer injection facilities and a naloxone distribution strategy, drug users are still dying at an alarming rate. Norway has the third-highest per capita drug death rate in Europe after Sweden and Estonia, with around 250 people dying each year.
Campaigners say this is because the country's most vulnerable drug users exist largely outside the much-praised health and welfare system. They say the most visible drug users are being arrested and fined as an easy way for police to boost "solved crime" rates.
"We have a great welfare and health system, but drug users aren’t wanted in that system," says Arild Knutsen, Head of the Norwegian Association for Humane Drug Policies, one of the most tireless and respected drug user rights campaigners in Norway. "You can come to a hospital when needed – if you're not a drug addict. You can get help with your mental health – if you're not a drug addict."
It is these policies and their stigmatising effects that ultimately created such a determined and successful campaign for reform in Norway. The question is, how did a group of NGOs achieve this in a country that was on very few people's lists to become Portugal 2.0?
"There was a moment of real opportunity that came about from an alignment of factors – Norway's high drug death rate, the move by UN agencies in favour of reform and a growing evidence base from countries that have already decriminalised – that was 'brilliantly grasped' by NGOs," says Steve Rolles, Head of Policy at drug policy foundation Transform.
Most observers agree that Norway's drug NGOs have gained a lot of respect among the public and politicians for helping marginalised drug users, and have therefore become an important voice in the debate. Knutsen, for example, is no public pariah for sticking up for heroin users. He was named citizen of the year by readers of the largest newspaper in Oslo and won Amnesty Norway's annual prize in 2014. But Rolles says one organisation played a central role in persuading the government and general public to rethink the drugs issue.
"It was perhaps a case of cometh the hour, cometh the NGO," says Rolles about the Association for Safer Drug Policies (ASDP). Formed in early 2016, they managed to convert Høie in record time.
"They are talented, professional and passionate. They've synthesised policy and advocacy lessons from across the world and created a highly effective campaign that’s delivered the goods in less than two years," says Rolles. "I guess it helps that Norway is a small country, so it's perhaps easier to make a splash, but nonetheless, a lot of the international reform groups they’ve claimed to have learned from could probably learn a lot more from them."
Ina Roll Spinnangr, the 35-year-old ASDP Director, pointed out earlier this year that "while there were already a few active user associations, some academics and older organisations with roots in the temperance movement who dominated the debate, there was a need for a new association that could embrace more voices from all walks of life".
Spinnangr worked in communication and marketing for various companies before becoming involved in politics because she wanted to improve the mental health and child care systems. She helped set up ASDP after becoming disillusioned with how "policies that were supposed protect the vulnerable from harm actually increase their problems and harm from drugs".
I asked her how she managed to turn the ASDP into such a major influencer.
"In the last couple of years, our organisation and a few other prominent voices have made drug policy reform a much talked-about issue in the media," she said (it's worth noting that Norway is a country with a very high newspaper readership). "We have changed the perception of the issue from fringe to mainstream. At the same time, we believe we've succeeded in reframing the debate from being a question of liberty to one of harm prevention."
One of Spinnangr's main messages was that the system was essentially using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
"We wanted to bring to the public’s attention the fact that not all people are vulnerable to becoming dependent; that while current policy may dissuade less-vulnerable individuals from using, it is actually doing more harm than good to the vulnerable minority. In a country that has one of Europe’s highest rates of drug overdose deaths, this is a strong message."
What is unique is how quickly she managed to persuade Høie. How was this done?
"As for the Health Minister, he seems to have had a personal revelation at some point. To what extent we have directly influenced him is unclear, but he is now using the exact same arguments for decriminalisation we would use against him when he opposed it. Progress would have been much slower without the Health Minister's change of heart."
In Norway, the reaction from the media has been very positive to the rerouting of drug reform. Several of the biggest national newspapers have taken a strong standpoint in favour, with some advocating legalisation. Yet, however confident people are that the government will turn drug policy around, there are still concerns the proposals may get watered down because not everyone is sold on the idea of decriminalisation. The biggest opponents are the Narcotics Police Association and the Christian Conservative Party, as well as some NGOs based within the temperance movement. It is the police, however, that represent the biggest obstacle to a Portuguese-style decriminalisation.
Bård Dyrdal, a senior detective in Oslo, formed the Scandinavian branch of LEAP (Law Enforcement Action Partnership), a global network of law enforcement figures opposing the War on Drugs, and says the current strategy is not working: "We chase people around the city taking their drugs, and they get more drugs. It’s no solution."
But he has met a wall of opposition from his colleagues, and set up LEAP Scandinavia last year in full knowledge it would mean he would never be promoted again. So far, he has gathered 20 officers to be part of LEAP, but only he and one other have been willing to reveal their identities.
"The national Chief of Police has been very clear in saying he is against decriminalisation, and those who disagree have to stay quiet. It is not surprising the police are against reform, because police do not like those who take their powers away," he says. "The drug laws are a powerful tool and open up all kinds of possibilities for us. If we want to check you for something, suspicion of drugs is a way to search you and your home. If we go into a house and there is cannabis on the table, we can arrest everyone who is there on suspicion of using it."
One of the key outcomes for many reformers will be the knock-on effect decriminalisation will have on the way authorities, institutions and the public view drug users. Alleviating taboos is a major part of this for Dyrdal, too. "I think decriminalisation is a start, not an end point," he says. "The most important thing is that it will change people’s mindset. If you take away punishment, you reduce stigma."
Perhaps the police will be less of a barrier to meaningful reform than people think. Dyrdal says that, since police started to hold naloxone, their attitude to drug users has improved: "Police don’t live in a bubble, we can rethink things. We have come a long way from how we used to treat people as 'junkies'."
The exact role of police in any new system, to be decided by the working group, will be key to its success or failure, says John Melhus, a drug law reformer from Norway who has spent many years working in the Netherlands: "It's important that the police do not continue to pursue and detain drug users in order to turn them over to the health authorities. It will mean we will continue to have the same problems – we can still not speak openly about drugs, and the public debate will still be constricted by fear."
Melhus, who describes Høie as a "very engaged and hard-working minister", suggests Norway could learn from the Netherlands, where heroin assisted treatment and drug user rooms have reduced drug deaths and visible drug use on the streets: "They also have one other thing in place, and that is that they do not let the police bother drug users – something which, in my opinion, allows for a freer public debate about drugs, which in turn leads to practical, hands-on solutions."
What is fascinating about Norway’s move is that it is happening at a time when drug policy reform is firmly on the global agenda, even more so than it was for Portugal in 2001, and most notably currently in the US and Canada.
There is a long way to go before change comes about in Norway, but Spinnangr remains confident that Scandinavia’s drug laws can be taken out of the deep freeze.
"It is very likely that Norway will see a Portuguese-style decriminalisation of use, purchase and possession of smaller amounts by 2021/22," she told me. But Norway is not enough. Spinnangr’s next stop could be Sweden.
"Sweden needs an effective community to advocate for changes in drug policy," she said earlier this year. "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."
Who would have thought, even five years ago, that Scandinavia could become the unlikely catalyst for a fresh wave of drug policy reform that could transform the way the world treats people who use drugs?