The government of Norway is moving to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all recreational drugs as well as their use, including everything from weed and coke to heroin, per Bloomberg.
The Norwegian health policy agency, the Ministry of Health and Care Services, sent legal proposals to legislators on Friday that would retain the illegal status for prohibited drugs but abolish all criminal penalties for “the use of drugs and the acquisition and possession of a small amount of drugs for own use.” Instead, police will confiscate drugs and refer their owners to municipal advisory units that could refer them to counseling (and fines could be imposed if treatment is not sought).
This doesn’t mark a complete and total transition from a punitive approach, and the Norwegian government isn’t setting a very high ceiling for what it defines as a small amount of drugs. According to Agence France-Presse, limits for cocaine and amphetamines will be just two grams (the same limit goes for heroin, though two grams of that goes a lot further) and the marijuana limit will be set at 10 grams, a little over a third of an ounce. Khat, a flowering plant originating from Ethiopia that can be chewed for its stimulant effect, will have a 17.6 oz (500 gram) limit.
Government officials from Norway’s Conservative Party, whose leader Erna Solberg is currently prime minister, and the Liberal Party both endorsed the policy change. However, it is opposed by many members of the centrist Centre Party, which has been making significant ground in recent polls and could potentially strangle reforms in the Storting (Norway’s parliament).
“Decades of criminal punishment has not worked,” Education Minister Guri Melby, the head of the Liberal Party, told reporters, according to Reuters. “We will no longer stand by and watch people being stigmatized and called criminals when they are in fact ill.”
Health Minister Brent Høie of the Conservative Party added that “I believe young people can be motivated to change behavior without the threat of force or criminal punishment. This will make it easier to seek help when they need it, as they won’t have to fear jail or fines.”
Virtually incontestable evidence has shown that the international War on Drugs, which emphasized treating drug use as a criminal problem rather than a public health one, has failed to achieve stated objectives like reducing drug use and trafficking or associated violent crime. Norwegian officials cited United Nations and the World Health Organization recommendations as informing the new approach.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy has urged world leaders to focus police attention on high-level organized drug syndicates, while exploring non-criminal avenues to draw non-violent actors out of drug dealing and treating drug use among the general population as a public health issue.
Per Wired, the Norwegian government first broke with decades of strict and uncompromising drug prohibition—including an uncommonly harsh law criminalizing not just possession but use of drugs—in 2017. The prohibition on use allowed police significant powers to crack down on individuals they simply suspected might be intoxicated, Wired wrote:
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.
The Storting voted in 2017 to create a commission focused on recommending legislative changes to hand over control of Norway’s drug regime from the justice system to health officials. Høie announced in an op-ed in the tabloid Dagbladet the next year he had concluded nothing good was coming from the prior approach and that fines levied against drug users were “detrimental and meaningless.” That change of heart was welcomed by Norwegian NGOs like the Association for Safer Drug Policies, according to Wired, which helped elevate drug policy reform into a major national issue in the first place.
As Bloomberg noted, data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction showed that in 2017 Norway had 66 drug-related deaths per million adults, close to three times the rate of 23.7 per million in the European Union—a dire outcome despite Norway’s generous welfare state, which could be largely explained by drug users avoiding treatment due to fear of heavy-handed intervention by police.
A handful of countries have already decriminalized personal possession and use of drugs, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Portugal. The Portuguese model enacted in 2001 coupled decriminalization with major investment in harm reduction and treatment services; it likely helped bring the number of people diagnosed with opioid use disorder receiving treatment to 75%, and reduced overdose deaths and diseases that can be transmitted via drug injection.
While the U.S. House of Representatives voted last year to decriminalize marijuana, the machinery of the federal prohibition on drugs remains in place. States have had more success reforming their own laws. Numerous states have now legalized or decriminalized marijuana, while Oregon became the first U.S. jurisdiction to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use earlier this month.