Norway: The Emperor's New Drug Policies

The list of human rights organizations and UN agencies that recommend decriminalization is growing. So strong is the pressure for less punitive drug policies, that it has become impossible for states to ignore. Real change has started happening as well. Cannabis has been legalized in five American states, and Canada is set to become the first G7 nation to regulate the drug. Countless others are decriminalizing personal use and possession. We have come to the realization that punitive policies infringe upon basic rights and prevent people from seeking help.

Some countries that are otherwise modern and humane, however, are ardently insisting on keeping harsh and punitive laws on the books, while trying to whitewash their resistance by serving up newspeak at the U.N. One of those countries, is Norway.

On the 8th of December, in a meeting in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the Norwegian delegation said "access to treatment should be voluntary" and civil society participation "should be strengthened." And on the 10th of December, the Norwegian delegation claimed that "all treatment in Norway is voluntary."

The Norwegian claims are, at best, a stretch of the truth.

The so-called "alternatives to prison" in Norway consist of drug courts or urine control contracts. Through drug court programs addicts facing prison are offered different forms of aid to get their lives back on track if they choose the program over prison. The programs include regular urine controls. Repeatedly failing controls can lead back to prison, and only one third of those who choose the programs complete them successfully.

For people between 15 and 18 caught with cannabis, urine control contracts are now the recommended sanction. They were marketed as "voluntary drug contracts," but have since been dubbed the more palatable "youth contracts," after health workers in Bergen complained that young people were being coerced to sign.

Those who choose this "alternative to punishment" are sometimes offered therapy sessions, but also have to pee in front of a stranger every week for up to a year. Should those who enter into agreements fail a test, they will be reported by health personnel, prosecuted and receive a fine and a criminal record. Health workers have complained of being uncomfortable with reporting their clients.

Police do not distinguish between problematic users and non-problematic users, and young people are also being pressured into turning themselves in and entering into agreements by concerned parents and friends. Arguably the regime is more punitive and intrusive than fines. No one knows whether those who enter into contracts actually discontinue use when the agreement expires, and many have said the urine controls pressured them into using dangerous synthetic drugs that are not as easily detected.

The police are prone to overstepping their mandate and infringe upon basic rights. In their eagerness to combat drugs, they have conducted illegal searches of schools using sniffer dogs, and entered into conflict with the School Student Union of Norway as a result. They have shamed students who possessed drugs in front of peers, and there are reports of parents who are warned they will be reported to Child Protective Services should they let their teenager choose a fine over a drug contract.

How any of this can be consistent with government claims that treatment is and should be voluntary, is a mystery. When people first hear of "alternatives to punishment" what comes to mind is replacing punishment with something more humane. Not forced treatment and intrusive controls where the government reserves the right to revert back to a punitive sanction. It is worth mentioning that UN recommendations include banning forced treatment.

The basic premise, relieving fear from prosecution thus making people feel safe to seek help for their drug problems sought by organizations such as the WHO arguably isn't fulfilled by current "alternatives to punishment" in Norway. It might sound nice, but it isn't.

Regarding civil society participation, the Norwegian government regularly includes the temperance movement (Actis) as their NGO partner at the UN. Actis claims to represent the whole substance use field in Norway, a claim which is patently untrue. The organization does not allow membership to reform minded NGOs. Actis also receives millions in government support, and people in their leadership are friends with the Health Minister on Facebook.

Reform minded organizations such as The association for humane drug policy, the Norwegian NORML and Emmasofia are not included. The existence of a plethora of organizations that claim to represent drug users, but in fact do not consist of actual users, is a situation eerily similar to that which homosexual liberation organizations faced in the 1960s and 1970s. So similar, in fact, that the Swedish reform minded NGO Brukarforeningen uses the slogan "NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US."

Perhaps the most telling proof of how dirty behind-the-scenes schemes currently are, is the fact that Dept. of Health officials have found a clever technicality to support a claim that Actis is more representative than reform minded NGOs. The only umbrella organization that allows organizations that support the status quo as well as reform minded organizations, which might have provided fairer representation, The Academic Council on Alcohol and Drugs, risks being blocked from participation because it also has public institutions among its' members.

The whole point of civil society participation must be letting grassroots voices of those affected negatively by current drug policies participate. That the Norwegian government is arguing for civil society participation while only including those who agree with them and not the active drug user organizations is arguably not very democratic. Having a liberal democracy includes offering rights -- and a voice -- to large minorities, even if their actions are unpopular with the majority.

The least reform minded NGOs should expect, is to be given a voice in a crucial international process such as the one leading up to UNGASS in New York next year. If the government is not willing to provide representation or follow international recommendations to decriminalize drug use and possession for personal use, they should not pretend they are doing so by offering a load of hogwash at home and at the U.N.