Liberals prevail in drug law reform

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Education minister Guri Melby could grin from ear to ear as mostly positive reaction rolled in over the weekend to the government’s plan to decriminalize small amounts of drugs for personal use. Her small Liberal Party has been trying to reform Norway’s drug laws for more than 20 years, and is now set to finally prevail.

Liberal Party leader Guri Melby, who also serves as education minister in Norway’s conservative government coalition, has finally won support for drug law reform. PHOTO: Venstre

“For us, this is all about dealing with people who use drugs in an entirely different way,” Melby said. “Decades of a regime of punishment have not worked.”

It was thus a victory when her government colleague, Health Minister Bent Høie, announced that the government now wants to abolish possession of small amounts of narcotics for personal use as a criminal offense. The drugs themselves will still be illegal, police will still be able to seize narcotics regardless of amount, and both sale and import of drugs will remain a criminal offense. Those found, however, in possession of less that 10 grams of cannabis, for example, or two grams of heroin will no longer be punished but rather followed up by health care personnel.

The government is forwarding the proposal to Parliament, where it’s expected to win support. The Labour Party has also advocated drug reform laws while others have long championed “more humane” policy.

“People who develop addiction problems have often been mentally ill, been exposed to traumatic events, and to abuse as a child before they began to use drugs,” Melby notes. “Punishment has not been a preventative measure and can make the problem worse.”

‘The right way to go’
Høie of the Conservative Party agreed, stressing that there is no research showing that criminal punishment has warded off more drug use. He admits to having changed his own view on drug policy and his party has come to agree with the government coalition partner Melby leads. The third member of the coalition, the Christian Democrats, has not, but went along with the coalition’s majority.

Under the current proposal, those found in possession of clearly defined amounts of drugs won’t risk being sentenced to jail but rather to obligatory professional help. They’ll face fines, however, if they don’t meet up for counseling.

“This is the right way to go,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen on Saturday. “Today’s drug laws have failed.” Drug users, the paper noted, “are people with an illness who should get help and medical care but who have instead been met by persecution.”

‘Long overdue’
Newspaper Aftenposten agreed, also editorializing in favour of the new drug law reform (called rusreform) and claiming it was long overdue. “A central goal is to reduce the stigma tied to drug abuse,” Aftenposten wrote on Saturday. “That’s difficult if you’re also punishing drug users.”

The leaders of two organizations advocating drug law reform hailed the government’s proposal. “This is an historic departure from the punishment regime of current drug policy,” Arild Knutsen, leader of the Association for Human Narcotics Policy, told newspaper Klassekampen. “This is a change I could hardly have hoped for just a few years ago.” Kenneth Arctander Johansen, leader of an addicts’ organization called Rio, agreed: “We can hardly exaggerate what this means. Now drug addicts will be met with help, not punishment.”

The government didn’t adapt all the liberalization measures proposed by a commission studying the issue but its proposal marks a significant change. Drug use will still prompt “a reaction” from society, Aftenposten noted, “and the government’s proposal should be acceptable for the Labour Party (which would provide the majority needed).” The government’s former coalition partner, the conservative Progress Party, has already voiced some objections but is expected to come around in the end.

“Both are apparently hesitating, because of internal debate and because this is hardly a popular issue just before the fall election,” wrote Aftenposten, while stressing that the proposal will strengthen social policy. “This will hopefully provide better help and a more secure framework for those with addiction problems.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund