Source: Norway Drug Reform
1 July 2010
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On wednesday, the Stoltenberg-commission presented their findings in a 48-page report. Among other things, the commission suggested a trial with prescribed heroin, similar to the one in Switzerland. They also suggested expanding harm reduction measures like injection rooms and giving out ascorbic acid in addition to clean syringes. Stoltenberg envisions a reform of current drug treatment, with new government harm reduction centers that would take care of the needs both of drug users and their families.
The members of the commission agreed on most points except the prescription of heroin, on which they were split with a majority being for. Five members were for, four were against.
The commission was created a year ago by then-minister of health Bjarne Håkon Hanssen to evaluate the situation of hard drug addicts in Norway. In particular, the question of whether to medicate addicts with prescribed government heroin was a controversial issue, and it was considered correct to have it evaluated by a special commission.
Thorvald Stoltenberg, the leader of the commission, is a long-time political veteran and former minister of foreign affairs, and also happens to be the current prime minister’s father. His daughter is a former heroin addict. Thorvald enjoys huge respect in Norwegian society because of his calm and positive personality, so his suggestions are expected to be taken seriously. The current minister of health Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen said she wants another round of hearings and internal government debate before acting on the proposal. Arild Knutsen, leader of the Association for humane drug policy (FHN) reacted in a radio interview, saying there is no time for more hearings when lives are being lost.
The report did not touch particularly on issues of soft drugs, as this was outside their mandate. However, Stoltenberg said he would discuss it in light of professor Willy Pedersen coming out for the legalization of cannabis last year. Parts of the report were quite conservative, calling for a “mobilization against drugs on the Internet,” and “regular drug test contracts with problematic youth” among other things. However, by and large, the findings can be considered a careful step in the right direction.
The minister of justice unexpectedly said he was no longer in favor of punishing drug use in the aftermath of the presentation of the commission’s results. He wanted to initiate changes in judicial policy as soon as possible during this government period. The use of prison against drug users was heavily criticised by former supreme court justice Ketil Lund last year, and government research was criticised for being biased at about the same time as professor Nutt was sacked in England. It remains to be seen what kind of alternatives are offered to prison – if they are heavy-handed or tolerant and inclusive.
Comment by ENCOD member Jan Vindheim:
Norway’s former foreign minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg, is the father not only of our prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, but also of former junkie Nini Stoltenberg, an outspoken critic of the war on drugs. Jens himself has admitted to being a bit of a smoker in his youth ( I have heard stories from mutual friends ....). Thorvald as head of a commission on new drug policies was expected to be controversial. The other members of the commission were mostly well-known former politicians .
The report that was presented a few weeks ago is radical in approach but not overly so. The langage of repression has been retained, and many of the specific recommendations are aimed at preventing drug use through programmes in schools etcetera.
The main focus is on humane treatment of injecting drug users, most controversially the commission wants to start prescribing heroin to people who have been through several rounds of rehabilitation, detoxification and what have you. They also propose more injection rooms, and easier access to clean needles as well as other paraphernalia.
Most promising is the soft approach (not mentioning the dangerous word decriminalization), where the commission, citing Portugal as an example, plainly states that use and posession should not be police matters. Offenders should be referred to treatment and other help from social workers.
And this is also where we meet the problems: The commission (very commendably) argues that follow up- programs for people who have successfully passed through rehabilitation (etc) should be strengthened considerably. Every user should have a personal guide to help her/him cope with bureaucracy in social services (etc) and facilitate a "normal" lifestyle. However nobody really believes the funding for such a massive army of social workers will be forthcoming.
And while such a program may be good for heavy users of heavy drugs, it will be less relevant and less useful for occasional users or for users of soft drugs only.
The report therefore is a far distance from being a call for legalization or an end to the war on drugs, but it still represents a major break with traditional thinking and a breakthrough for harm reduction approaches to drug problems.
It remains to be seen how far the commission’s recommendations wil be put into practice. It is possible that the heroin-program will not pass, but if so it will have served as a useful target for the drug warriors, who have been so busy fighting "free heroin" that they have not had the time to criticise other parts of the report.