Swiping a crucial chapter out of the good book of Portuguese drug policy, the Norwegians have stood up in favor of decriminalizing all illegal substances.
The overall goal behind this newfound, common sense approach to dealing with the darkness of these addict days, is to replenish the soul of civil society by helping drug users sink their teeth into the treatment they need rather than try to change their ways in prison.
It was late last week when the Norwegian Parliament, often referred to as the Storting, voted in favor of developing legislation that would eventually lead to the decriminalization of all controlled substances. According to a report from the Independent, the majority of the lawmakers agreed that it makes more sense to put ailing addicts into rehab programs, while saving the throes of the criminal justice system for dope slingers and other unsavory characters of the black market drug trade.
The policy change, once it takes effect, will not allow for the creation of a taxed and regulated market of any kind. This is not a call for legalization. Norway has simply taken the first step toward imposing reforms similar to that of Portugal, which decriminalized all illicit substances, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana, back in 2001.
“It is important to emphasize that we do not legalize cannabis and other drugs, but we decriminalize,” said Sveinung Stensland, deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee. “The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.”
A report published earlier this year by the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Addiction shows there were over 48,000 drug law violations in Norway in 2014. The country, which has a population of more than five million people, experienced almost 300 drug overdose deaths during that time.
The latest plan would give anyone caught in possession of small amounts of illegal drugs the opportunity to enter into a treatment program rather than take their chances in the criminal justice system. The country intends to save its jail space for those offenders trying to capitalize on the distribution and sale of these outlaw substances.
But it could take some time before the law changes.
“It is important for all parties involved in this that it is about large-scale reforms: how to support people and help them out of drug abuse,” said Nicholas Wilkinson, health spokesperson for the Socialist Left party. “The most important thing is that this will be good reform. If we have to wait another year for it to really work, it’s worth it.”
For now, there is no legislation on the table. The move by Parliament simply instructs the government to get serious about crafting Norway’s model of a society where drug use is no longer a crime.
It’s likely that the new system will look a lot like the one that has been proving successful for nearly the past two decades in Portugal.
Since the decriminalization policy was put into place there, the country has experienced fewer overdose deaths, less disease and more people than ever are taking advantage of drug treatment.
It should come as no surprise that decriminalization has been way more effective than the country’s previous attempts to address the issue by running anti-drug campaigns.
But the switch did not happen overnight.
“These social movements take time,” Portugal drug czar, Dr. João Goulão, recently told the Guardian.
He says it is possible the policy would have never gained any traction had the middle and upper class not been affected.
“There was a point when you could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected,” Goulão said. “Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’”
Last year, Norway rolled out a program that allowed drug addicts to be sentenced to treatment rather than jail. The goal of this new concept was to try and clean up addicts that found themselves in trouble with the law—give them a second chance to exist drug-free within their communities without being forced to see the inside of a prison cell.
But the program failed to some degree. Anyone who violated drug treatment, either by testing positive for drugs or simply not showing up to participate, was immediately thrown in prison for the remainder of his or her sentence.
In Portugal, drug offenders are not forced to enter into treatment as part of their sentence. It’s on them. Because of this, many choose to utilize this resource in hopes of establishing a better quality of life. It is expected that Norway will follow this philosophy when drafting its reform.
It’s unfortunately the United States government cannot seem to wrap its swelled head around this idea. On Capitol Hill, the concensus is that the drug problem is still really only affecting the poor and what’s left of the middle class. But the reality is that drug addiction has now officially gone mainstream. Drugs are more popular than Jesus Christ. It has become a new religion inside the tired veins of a people, white, black, pink and blue, still searching for an American dream that never really existed. Make America Great Again? Good luck.