ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICIES IN EUROPE
NORWEGIAN ATTITUDES TO DRUG REFORM
The past year has seen astonishing developments in the public discussion of drug politics here in Norway. Public attitudes have generally been extremely restrictive, and the only people to challenge the prohibition-policy have until recently been a few lawyers and drug-users. There has however been a trend towards harm reduction policies for hard drug users; needle exchange and methadone or subutex substitution programmes have been in place in several cities, and the capital Oslo even has a controversial injection room.
Signs of a change have been multiplying, however. The incredibly energetic activist Arild Knutsen, head of the Association for Humane Drug Politics (Foreningen for Human Narkotikapolitikk), has turned many people’s attitudes around. It also caught a lot of attention when a few years ago renowned cannabis-researcher Willy Pedersen, previously a prominent prohibitionist, announced that he has had a change of heart and is now in favour of legal distribution of cannabis. Pedersen has also argued against the Norwegian ban on khat and the criminalization of drug users in general.
As in other places the political elite consists of people who have grown up after drugs became commonly available, and a few politicians have admitted to a past history of drug experimentation. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg from the Labour party has admitted being a cannabis smoker in his youth, and his sister Nina is a well known heroin-survivor, who repeatedly has called for drug policy reform. Their father, Thorvald Stoltenberg (photo), a former Foreign Minister, has been a prominent supporter of alternative drug policies. He was chair of a high-level commission which in 2010 presented a report to the Norwegian parliament calling for a liberal approach including decriminalization of use and possession of all drugs, and for trials with prescribing heroin to long-term addicts. Even more recently he was a member of the Global Commission on Drugs which, as we all know, called for a total reversal of the global control regime in their report last year.
Even though the recommendations of the Stoltenberg-commission were rejected with gusto by all political parties, there has been a noticable softening of attitudes and language. The political parties and especially their youth organizations have started considering the whole drug war scenario in a critical manner.
These changing attitudes became apparent when the conservative journal Minerva devoted its last issue in 2011 to drug policy reform, with the slogan “legalize drugs” on the front page. In addition to several well informed articles on the politics of drugs and the international drug reform movement, they had even found parliamentarians from all the leading parties who were willing to defend radical changes in the public approach to drugs. Minerva is associated with the main conservative party, Høyre, which is strongly prohibitionist. The hypocrisy of this attitude was demonstrated, however, when one of their leading drug warriors, Henning Warloe recently admitted using cocaine and amphetamines.
Discussions on alternatives to ossified prohibitionism have carried on into 2012. Several major papers have carried prominent articles and op-eds calling for an end to prohibitionism and experiments with regulated drug markets. Local organizations of the Socialist party (SV) and the Liberal party (Venstre) are calling for legalization of all drugs. Even the youth organization of the far-right Progress Party now demands legalization of cannabis. The Progress Party promotes a libertarian economics, and representatives have been known to advocate market-oriented drug politics abroad. In Norwegian discourse, however, they have been strong proponents of prohibiton, calling for ever more heavy jail sentences, and rejecting any discussion of alternatives. It was therefore no surprise that party officials immediately denounced the decision by the youth party.
The situation at present in Norway (as elsewhere) is therefore that prohibitionism remains entrenched in the political establishment, but that cracks in the fortifications are becoming ever more prominent. Older politicians are generally unable to change their stance, and younger politicians are unwilling to spend their capital on what they perceive to be a vote-loser. There needs to be a discernible change in public opinion before politicians will change. As always the public must lead, and the politics will follow.
By Jan Bojer Vindheim