State set to allow heroin smoking

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Health Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, claiming that the heroin overdose rate in Norway is “shamefully” high, wants to allow addicts to smoke the illegal drug under controlled circumstances. Støre thinks that will lower consumption and overdoses, and he has full support for his proposal from the rest of the government.

Jonas Gahr Støre wants to allow drug addicts to smoke their heroin instead of inject it, but the health ministry claims the move doesn't amount to decriminalization. PHOTO: Ministry of Health

Jonas Gahr Støre wants to allow drug addicts to smoke their heroin instead of inject it, but the health ministry claims the move doesn’t amount to decriminalization. PHOTO: Ministry of Health

Norway has long ranked at or near the top of lists measuring overdose fatalities in Europe. There now are an estimated 10,000 heroin addicts in Norway who inject the drug, and 294 of them died in 2011, according to the Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research (SIRUS, Statens institutt for rusmiddelforskning). The fatality statistic compared to 170 persons who died in traffic accidents, reported newspaper Dagsavisen on Friday.

“The numbers of deaths from drug overdoses is too high, I would say it’s a shame for Norway,” Støre told Dagsavisen. “The means by which addicts take their drugs is important in preventing overdose. My opinion is that we should allow them to smoke heroin. Injecting it is worse and more dangerous.”

Støre thinks that if more addicts smoke the drug instead of injecting it, the risk of hepatitis andHIV/ AIDS infection would decline as well.

Støre launched what some are calling an “historic liberalization” of Norwegian drug policy in Friday’s edition of the magazine Erlik Oslo, which is sold by addicts and the homeless on the streets of the capital.  It was warmly welcomed by spokespersons for Norway’s addicts including Arild Knutsen, leader of a national association for humane narcotics policies.

“Støre’s move marks a breakthrough and will save many from an overdose,” Knutsen told Dagsavisen. “This is a controversial move by the health minister, because it’s completely new that state officials care about this.”

The government intends to present a formal proposal on changes in the drug laws next week. It won’t call for treatment using heroin, as suggested by some researchers, but will call for liberalization under controlled circumstances. Støre said it would be up to local municipalities to provide the controlled circumstances, such as “smoking rooms” in facilities that have provided clean needles.

SIRUS has calculated that hard-core addicts inject around 160 grams of heroin a year, while heroin smokers consume around 118 grams. Knutsen hopes at least a quarter of Norway’s addicts will take advantage of the  liberalization, which the health ministry claimed in not a decriminalization, and switch to smoking. Heroin itself will remain illegal.

Støre’s proposal is perhaps ironic in a country that has strict laws against smoking tobacco and now is likely to allow smoking heroin, but Knutsen defends it. “A switch from injecting to smoking is almost like going from an AIDS diagnosis to diabetes,” he told Dagsavisen. “It’s very hard to smoke yourself to an overdose, and it’s much easier to stop using heroin if you’ve been smoking it.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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