Recently, Norway has been promoting itself, on the international and domestic stage, as having a modern drug policy. In preparation for the important U.N. meeting on drug policy in April – the UNGASS – Norway has hosted sessions with progressive countries, such as Switzerland and Colombia, in Vienna and New York.
In a U.N. meeting on February 9, Geir O. Pedersen, Norway’s permanent U.N. representative, said. “Drug use and related complications are primarily public health issues and should be addressed by the healthcare system, on a basis of humane and evidence-based treatment.” And in a press release on February 12, the Norwegian government announced that it was expanding its drug court program, and called it “voluntary.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The so-called “alternatives to incarceration” (drug courts and urine testing contracts) which Bent Høie, the Norwegian Minister of Health, among others, is advocating, are based on regular supervised urine controls.
If subjects fail tests, the government will revert back to a punitive sanction: imprisonment, fines, and a criminal record. With relapse being a symptom of addiction, the policy is far from progressive or humane as the government claims. Some alternatives may be worse, due to a net widening-effect – resulting in more people coming into contact with the judicial system and sanctions being more intrusive. In some cases, a sentence will end up being longer when a drug court participant is sent back to prison. The result is a lack of security under the rule of law.
Norway has some of the strictest drug laws in Europe. Mere use will result in a fine and a criminal record, and repeat offenders face prison time. For harder drugs, the limits to when police can give a fine and a criminal record instead of prison are quite low (a single dose). Dealers can receive sentences on par with those handed out for murder, as recently seen in a large cannabis case, where one of the defendants was given 16 years. It is therefore absurd, that ambassador Pedersen, at the same U.N. meeting, went on to claim that “drug related offenses do not meet the threshold of the most serious crimes.”
Pedersen also claimed that “children should not be subject to criminal prosecution.” However, Norway has not reformed its sentencing practice in respect of children. Instead, they are pressured into demeaning and intrusive drug control contracts that frequently do not include any therapy.
A 2014 report by The Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research, examining the first 115 subjects who were offered drug court programmes, did not find the programmes to be particularly successful. Only one in three people complete the programmes. When people are obliged to choose between many years in prison and a drug court programme, the report found that programmes could not be called voluntary. Furthermore, only the most resourceful addicts were found suitable and able to complete the programmes; disadvantaged people with more complicated difficulties were categorized as unsuitable, or failed urine controls.
Ignoring the evidence, a Norwegian U.N. delegation on December 10 last year claimed: “We reach those who are hard to reach and treat.”
Arild Knutsen, a Norwegian campaigner for more humane drug policies, recently said of drug courts, "Coercion is a form of punishment, and is not what these people need. They need help. Drug users are still being treated as if they were subhuman.”
Ambassador Pedersen concluded the aforementioned February 9 speech at the U.N. by saying, “Convictions for drug related offenses result in disproportionately harsh sentences for relatively minor offences. We should therefore encourage member states to use alternatives to imprisonment for drug-related offences of a minor, non-violent nature.”
Most drug users in Norway, however, are not offered alternatives for “offences of a minor non-violent nature”. They receive the usual criminal sanctions which have been on the books for decades. It has been well documented that 90% of drug users have no problem with their drug use (except for being criminalised) and do not require any treatment. This group should simply be left alone. If Norway was truly progressive, that’s what the country would have done.
On a particularly provocative note, Pedersen ended his U.N. speech by advocating for integrating human rights into state law, even though it clearly seems that Norway is in breach of such basic rights.
The World Health Organization recommends decriminalisation of drug use, and calls for an end to forced treatment. And UNAIDS has asked for an end to forced urine controls. Norway has no intention of following any of these recommendations. The Norwegian government is flying under a false flag, when it tries to come across as progressive and tell other countries what they should do.
Nora Eide, NORML Norway