Norway Votes to Decriminalize Drug Use, in Favor of Treatment

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Norway’s parliament has voted to decriminalize drug use this week, moving instead to focus on treatment for addicted drug users in place of punitive measures.

The vote, with the majority of parliament voting to decriminalize, asks the government to prepare for reform. Parliament wants to stop punishment drug users who struggle to provide assistance and professional treatment. Those found with small amounts of drugs from heroin to marijuana but won’t be arrested and instead offered treatment.

Members of parliament have said the effort will focus on treatment and follow-up programs. They also emphasized that they do not want to legalize drugs, only decriminalize drug use.

The process of changing the policies will take time, but the vote is a symbolic change for the new direction and vision. Currently, those who are struggling with substance abuse are treated as criminals with sanctions like fines and imprisonment, but the Norwegian parliament believes that they should be treated as ill.

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Some members of parliament are calling the vote a “historic transformation of Norwegian drug policy.” The process aims to bequeath the responsibility from the justice system to health agencies.

Norway has considered decriminalizing drug use for several years, even starting a test program in Olso and Bergen that would sentence drug users to treatment rather than jail in 2006. In 2016, the courts were allowed to use this option on a national level.

Recently the Norwegian Minister of Health, Bent Høie, changed his position on the issue, saying he believed in treatment in place of punishment. The shift, however, is not a unanimous one. Some members of parliament believe decriminalization sends a signal to drug users that the offense is not serious, but that has never stopped addicted users from getting and taking drugs.

Portugal similarly decriminalized all drug use in 2001 after harsh punishments did not improve the opioid crisis, and it set the precedent for that approach at the national level. Over 15 years, the country has seen a decline in drug use, and drug-related deaths.