Norway's drug policies 'could set example for rest of the world'

Exclusive: Drug policy in the Scandinavian country is no longer a criminal matter but one of public health

Wednesday 21 March 2018 19:16 GMT
Letter encourages use of evidence-based prevention and information efforts at schools and society to prevent drug use.
Letter encourages use of evidence-based prevention and information efforts at schools and society to prevent drug use.

Norway’s drug laws could be an example for the rest of the world, leading healthcare and police figures from around the world have said.

Drug policy in the Scandinavian country is no longer a criminal matter but one of public health - a move that has been widely praised by experts.

Now 20 international policymakers and stakeholders from 10 countries have outlined a number of further reforms to ensure the policy platform can work as an even better template for other countries to follow.

In a joint letter sent to Norway’s health minister, Bent Høie, they provide a number of suggestions to minimise the stain of drug use on society.

It calls for the decriminalisation of non-violent drug offences, investment in treatment programmes and aftercare facilities, along with drug substitution therapies.

“We hope the Minister of Health in Norway as well as the global community will consider these recommendations in their important effort to change both Norwegian and global drug policy reform initiative,” the letter states.

One of the letter's signatories, Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told The Independent the reforms should inspire change in the UK.

He said that decriminalisation approaches were "more than just a change in the law, they need to be part of a wider reorientation towards a health led approach and away from the failings of the punitive enforcement model".

He added: “Change is already happening in the UK with several police forces piloting de facto decriminalisation, or ‘diversion’ schemes, but as yet central government has been very much opposed."

The changes already under way in Norway, which voted at the end of last year to "stop punishing people who struggle [with drug use] and instead give them help and treatment", should "add pressure" to other governments, he said.

He said the British government had been opposed to reforms despite recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Royal Society of Public Health, the World Health Organisation, the British Medical Association and publications including the British Medical Journal and Lancet.

“Even public opinion is in favour - so it is hard to understand what the obstacles are," he said. "Still, Norway’s reforms will undoubtedly add to the pressure for change - so it is very welcome.”

In response to calls for reforms a Home Office spokesperson said: “This Government has no plans to decriminalise drug misuse.

“There is a substantial body of scientific and medical evidence to show that controlled drugs are harmful and can damage people's mental and physical health, and our wider communities.

“Our new Drug Strategy sets out a balanced approach which brings together police, health, community and global partners to tackle the illicit drug trade, protect the most vulnerable and help those with a drug dependency to recover and turn their lives around.”

Read the letter in full

We, the undersigned, commend the Minister on initiating the shift from a criminal justice to a public health approach in Norwegian drug policy. If executed correctly, not only does this important reform hold the potential to save lives and reduce drug-related harms in Norway, it can have a major impact internationally, serving as an example for other nations looking to reform their drug policies.

Around the world, an increasing number of governments are turning to pragmatic health and harm reduction strategies as a more effective way of dealing with drug-related problems on both a societal and an individual level. Unlike the traditional approach to illicit drugs, which is focused on curbing use, the harm reduction approach builds on a commitment to public health and human rights and seeks to reduce the overall harms from drug use in society by making drug use less harmful - for both people who use drugs and those that do not - wherever possible.

To identify, assess and prioritize policies in a Norwegian model, independent commissions of drug policy experts from relevant disciplines such as medicine, criminology, sociology and economics should be consulted to ensure that the full evidence base is reflected in the new regime. People who use drugs and drug services should be included in consultations along with other affected communities.

Drawing on research and experience from a variety of countries and disciplines, a number of policy makers, health care professionals, academics and drug policy experts would like to recommend the following preliminary set of ideas for the Minister’s consideration:

The overall goal of drug policy reform should be to minimize the total strain that drug use and drug criminalisation has on on the individual and society, rather than the prevalence of use. This effort should be based on the best evidence and evaluated with a comprehensive set of indicators of public health, community safety and human rights.

Important harm reduction services should be scaled up to meet demand, and easy access to these services should be ensured. Examples of such services are drug substitution therapy with a wide range of medications, supervised drug consumption sites, drug testing sites, sufficient access to naloxone and other antagonists, and needle and syringe exchange programmes for those who need them (including prison populations).

Minor, non-violent drug offences should be decriminalized. This includes possession and use, as well as minor acquisition, production for personal use and petty sale. Using police resources in this area is ineffective and often harmful, and resources are better employed strengthening health and social-sector alternatives.

Investments in treatment programmes and aftercare facilities should be prioritized and validated using high-quality evidence and research, just like other medical interventions. Compulsory treatment and measures such as coerced urine testing and forced abstinence should be avoided as they adversely impact patient outcomes in addition to being at odds with basic medical ethics and human rights.

Prevention and information efforts should be based on the best evidence. Honest information campaigns should be designed using evidence-based guidelines for risk communication. Prevention efforts in schools and society should be based on tested approaches, supplemented with investments in general preventive factors such as education, vocational training, housing and social activities.

We hope the Minister of Health in Norway as well as the global community will consider these recommendations in their important effort to change both Norwegian and global drug policy reform initiatives. We are happy to offer support and assistance as needed.

Hedy d’Ancona, Former Minister of Health, The Netherlands

David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology and director of the Neuropsychopharmacology, UK

Ron Hogg, Police, Crime and Victims’ Commissioner of Durham UK

Ann Fordham, Executive Director, International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) - UK

Steve Rolles, Senior policy analyst, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, UK

Johann Hari, Writer and drug policy activist, UK

Neil Woods, Chairman Law enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP)UK and board member LEAP USA, UK

Benjamin-Alexandre Jeanroy, Head of drug policy reform, ECHO, France

Anne-Marie Cockburn, bereaved mother of 15 year old Martha Fernback and campaigner for Anyone’s Child, Families for Safer Drug Control, UK

Peter Muyshondt, Deputy chief of police, Local Police Voorkempen, Belgium

Bård Dyrdal, Police Superintendent, Oslo Politidistrikt, Chairman LEAP Scandinavia, Norway

Nanna W. Gotfredsen - Lawyer, Executive Director & Founder of The Danish Street Lawyers - Denmark,

Frederik Polak - Psychiatrist, Board Member Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation - Netherlands

Kari Lossius, Specialist in Clinical Psychology, Bergen Clinics Foundation, Norway

Harvey B. Milkman, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, Metropolitan State University of Denver, USA

Ted Goldberg, Professor of Sociology, Sweden

Tuukka Tammi, Development Manager, Institute for Health and Welfare, Finland

Ole Røgeberg, Senior Research Fellow/Deputy Director - Frisch Centre, Norway

Kenzi Riboulet Zemouli, Head of Research, Foundation for Alternative Approaches to Addiction, Think & do tank, Spain

Ina Roll Spinnangr, Chair, The Association Safer Drug Policies, Norway.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in