People Who Use Drugs Are Demanding Their Rights In Norway, Finding Support From Influential Voices

More than 90 academics, politicians and lawyers in Norway have signed a public statement in support of the country's organizations that fight for the rights of people who use drugs and their right to be heard and included in political decisions. The petition was published on February 12 in Norway's largest daily newspaper, Verdens Gang. Signatories include two former Supreme Court judges and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party.

The group of Norwegian organizations believe that personal drug use should be decriminalized and that drugs should be regulated within the law, instead of a counterproductive blanket prohibition. People who use drugs in Norway also want better access to quality voluntary treatment while recognizing that most people who use drugs are healthy, productive individuals who do not require treatment. Their demands for decriminalization find support at the World Health Organization and U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

With an important United Nations meeting on drug policy coming up in April, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), the organizations made the following recommendations for Norway's contribution to the special session on drugs in New York:

1. International drug policies must be grounded in human rights.

2. Norway must demand that countries in Asia and the Middle East immediately end capital punishment and forced internment against users and sellers of illegal drugs.

3. Use and possession of drugs for personal use must be completely decriminalized without punitive policies being replaced with new and intrusive sanctions.

4. Norway must be open about the fact that the majority of people who uses illegal drugs do not have drug problems. In a democracy they have a right not to be punished or persecuted.

5. Harm reducing measures with low thresholds, better housing, strengthened long-term follow-up and other measures designed to help those who experience problems with drugs must be widely available and voluntary.

6. Norway should, in a sensible manner, regulate currently illegal drugs within the law instead of a general prohibition that is ineffective and has catastrophic consequences abroad and domestically.

Ahead of the upcoming UN meeting, Norwegian activists and drug user organizations felt they were not being listened to in the preparatory process. The Norwegian government has boasted of strong civil society involvement and inclusion of people who use drugs, while in reality including anti-drug and temperance organizations that have no active drug users.

Norway's minister of Health, Bent Høie, received the statement in person on March 1 at a public meeting in Oslo, where he reaffirmed the Norwegian government's intention to keep including the temperance movement as their main partner at the U.N.

Despite its progressive stances in other areas, Norway has strict drug laws and focuses on punitive sanctions against drug use. People who use drugs are fined, imprisoned or subjected to demeaning drug control regimes and given criminal records. The sale or import of drugs (even cannabis) can result prison sentences that are on par with those handed out for murder, making Norway one of the strictest countries in Europe.

Recently, Norway has expanded its drug court program, which in effect is a form of forced treatment. The Department of Justice has misleadingly called the program 'voluntary' (you could always 'choose' prison instead of supervised urine controls). Real penal reforms have not been on the table.

However, with this loud call from Norwegian organizations, supported by influential voices, there is hope that Norway will soon join the growing chorus of progressive countries demanding drug policies grounded in health and human rights.

Arild Knutsen is a long-time drug user activist and founder and leader of The Norwegian Association for Humane Drug Policies, which is a part the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD). Knutsen is a vocal supporter of harm reduction, substitution treatment, social help for people addicted to drugs, and legal and regulated sales of cannabis. Knutsen was named citizen of the year by readers of the largest newspaper in Oslo in 2009 and won Amnesty Norway's annual prize in 2014.