Historical archive

Help, not punishment for drug use

Historical archive

Published under: Solberg's Government

Publisher Ministry of Health and Care Services

The Norwegian Government proposes that use and possession of smaller quantities of illicit drugs for personal use no longer shall be punishable as a criminal offence. Instead of punishment, persons caught in possession of illicit drugs will be referred to a mandatory meeting with a municipal counselling service. There, they will receive information about the risks and negative health consequences of drug use and receive an offer of help. Use and possession of illicit drugs will continue to be illegal.

The government submitted a proposal to the Parliament on February 19th 2021 for an amendment to the penal code. 

“The Norwegian Drug  Policy reform represents a historic shift in Norwegian drug policy. Not only will the reform amend legislation; it will also express a change attitudes towards persons with drug problems. For too long, persons with drug related problems have been stigmatised and criminally prosecuted. They have been threatened, chased and humiliated. It is overdue that we replace punishment with help”, says Minister of Health and Care Services, Bent Høie.

“Several decades of criminalisation has not worked. We are proud to present a Drug Policy Reform that offers help, not punishment. This is a victory for common sense, for knowledge and dignity for those who are struggling. This will be Norway’s most important social reform in decades. As Party Leader of the Liberal Party of Norway, I am proud that our efforts for better drug policy over the past 20 years are being realised”, says Party Leader of Liberal Party of Norway and Ministry of Education and Research, Guri Melby.

Smaller quantities of drugs will no longer be punishable
The Norwegian Government’s Drug Policy Reform is to a large extent based Norwegian Drug Reform Committee’s proposals. Use and possession of illicit drugs continues to be illegal, but such use and possiession of smaller quantities for personal use will no longer be punishable. This applies to purchase, use, possession and storage of smaller quantities of illicit drugs for personal use.

“We shall offer help, treatment and follow-up. Punishment contributes to stigmatisation and social exclusion. Many people also do not seek help for their problems out of fear of being punished. We are now lowering the thresholds for receiving and providing help”, says Høie.

All other involvement with illicit drugs, such as importing, manufacturing and sale will continue to be criminally prosecuted in the same manner as it is today. The same applies to storage exceeding threshold quantities. All substances will be seized, irrespective of quantity.

The police will continue to uncover drug use and possession, and will have the auhtority to conduct searches for such substances.

Punishment has a disproportionate social impact

Punishment has a disproportionate social impact. It affects young people who are already struggling to a much greater extent than others. Children of parents with low education are seven times more likely to be punished for cannabis use than children of parents with high education, even though twice as many children of parents with high education use cannabis.

“Punishment is not a deterrent, and in drug policy it often impacts disproportionately and severely. It is time to replace outmoded methods that do not work with updated solutions. There is almost no correlation between the punitive measures in a country and the level of drug use. Now it is time for Norway, too, to think innovatively”, says Melby.

In order to prevent drug problems, upstream efforts are important. The Norwegian Government has strengthened the community health centre and school health services with NOK 1.3 billion since 2014 and ensured an increased number of psychologists in the municipalities. It is important to provide help at an early stagr and the services of prompt mental healthcare has been expanded. Through the Action Plan for Children and Young People's Mental Health, the services for young people with drug problems will be strengthened and further developed.

Prevention efforts must be knowledge-based. Therefore, the Norwegian Government has initated to assess Norway's drug prevention measures to ensure they are compliant with the international standards on drug use prevention in cooperation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The Norwegian Government will return to how this initiative shall be followed up.

Mandatory attendance with a municipal counselling service.

Persons caught in possession of quantities of illicit drugs exempt from punishment will have the substance confiscated and receive an order from the police to attend a meeting with a municipal counselling service. Attendance is mandatory. As a main rule, minors shall be imposed such a meeting jointly with their parents. The municipalities will be obligated to establish a Municipal Counselling Service for Drug Cases within the health care services for this purpose. 

At the municipal counselling service, they will receive information about the possible risks and harmful effects of using drugs as well as professional healthcare guidance and counselling. If the person consents, the need for help shall be assessed. Further follow-up takes place within ordinary services. It is a principle of the healthcare services that healthcare should, with only a few exceptions, be provided with consent.

“The Drug Policy Reform is a recognition that a drug problem primarily is a health problem, and not a criminal offence. Therefore, it should be the healthcare services that follow up on persons with drug problems”, says Høie.

In recent years, the municipal services for persons with drug related problems have been expanded through the Action Plan on Psychoactive Substances (2016–2020). Allocations to the municipalities regarding drug related services and treatment in the specialised healthcare services, have increased considerably, and the economic target of NOK 2.4 billion for the Action Plan over the last five years has been met and exceeded.

The number of full-time equivalents in the municipal drug and mental healthcare services has increased by (a figure of) 2600 since 2016. These are professionals who not only deal with treatment of substance use related problems and disorders, but also provides assistance with housing, school, employment, work related and leisure activities. The capacity and competence in multidisciplinary specialised drug treatment have also been expanded and the waiting times are nearly halved since 2013.

Non-attendance fees
The Norwegian Government believes that failure to comply with a police order for mandatory attendance should have consequences. Therefore, the introduction of a fee for failing to attend a meeting with the municipal counselling service is proposed. This will result in increased attendance and so the healthcare service will be positioned to help more people.

However, fees should not be charged if this would be unreasonably burdensome due to the person’s financial and life situation in general. It is proposed that the fee is set at twice the prevailing court fee. Currently, this amount is NOK 2398. 

Threshold quantities for the most common substances
Threshold quantities are introduced for the most common substances, specifying the quantity of a substance a person can purchase and possess without being punished. These threshold quantities are significantly lower than those proposed by the majority of the Norwegian Drug Reform Committee. The police and several other consultative bodies' position is that the quantities of substances proposed by the Committee is set too high.

“Among other things, the police are concerned that traffickers of drugs would adapt to such quantities, rendering it more difficult for the police to uncover sales and serious drug offences. Many are also concerned that it would make drugs more accessible, especially to young people. We have been responsive to these concerns, and the threshold quantities are therefore set considerably lower than the Committee’s proposals”, says Høie.

Extensive drug use results in a higher need and tolerance for these substances. To insure that low levels of quantities do not result in punishing this group with fines and imprisonment, additional upper threshold quantities are introduced. It will be punishable to be in possession of drugs between the lower and upper threshold quantities, but in such circumstances the police shall, as a main rule, conditionally waive prosecution if the substance is for personal use and not for sale. A condition may be to attend the municipal counselling service.

“In this manner, we avoid adversely affecting those who need this reform the most. Issuing fines to persons without an income or dwelling is meaningless. The result is that these persons incurr debt they will never be able to pay by legal means. It prevents them from starting over, and it makes life more difficult for them and their next of kin”, says Høie.

A person may be in possession of three different illicit substances at the same time, without being punished presupposed they do not exceed the decided threshold quantities. Many persons who are addicted to drugs are so-called polydrug users. To avoid punishment for this group, there is a need to allow for the possession of multiple substances at the same time.

The quantities of the various substances that a person may be in possession of without being punished are determined in regulations and are subject to change, if needed. The same applies to the number of substances.

These are the proposed threshold quantities for the most common substances

Substance

Threshold quantities exempt from punishment

Threshold quantities where the main rule is waiver of prosecution

Heroin

2 grams

5 grams

Cocaine

2 grams

5 grams

Amphetamine

2 grams

5 grams

GHB, GBL and 1,4-Butanediol

0.5 decilitre

1 decilitre

LSD

1 tab/“blotter paper”

3 tabs/“blotter papers”

LSD, pure active substance

1 mg

2 mg

MDMA (powder/crystals)

0.5 gram

1 gram

Cannabis

10 grams

15 grams

Mushrooms containing psilocin/psilocybin

20 grams

50 grams

Khat

500 grams

2 kg

Medication

15 recreational drug doses

25 recreational drug doses

The reform is in accordance with UN recommendations
The direction that the Norwegian Government is now proposing for Norwegian Drug Policy is in accordance with recommendations from all UN agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Narcotics Control Board, the World Health Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.