It might seem extreme to some, but many countries have been considering decriminalizing drug use. The reason being is that people who receive treatment opposed to punishment are less likely to re-offend, commit a crime, and cost public more money. In Norway, the Parliament just passed a plan to decriminalize drugs. Yes, that means all drugs, even heroin, meth, crack, you name it. As long as the person is caught with small quantities, they will not face criminal punishment such as fines or imprisonment. Norway plans to have a system similar to Portugal, who has already decriminalized drug use and is seeing positive results.
The Norwegian government wants to be clear that they are not legalizing drugs. People would not be able to freely sell drugs in public, this would still be illegal and could result in imprisonment. It’s the average drug user who would benefit. A person caught with drugs would be offered avenues for help, such as detox, therapy, and addiction treatment. The country wants to end the stigma of drug use being classified as a crime and change the conversation around drugs as a whole. They want to classify and treat drug use as an illness. Around the world, including the United States, jails and prisons have almost 0 effects on people trying to get clean from drugs. Jails and prisons are often filled with drugs and offer very little treatment options. Many offenders also have co-occurring mental health conditions that also get ignored. Norway wants to make an example of the world and show that treating addiction as a disease is far more successful than the traditional “War on Drugs” found in most countries.
The parliamentary result, however, does not automatically decriminalize illicit drugs in Norway. The vote directs the government to begin pursuing changes to laws to reflect the outcome of the vote. It will take some time, but is looking like some serious changes will be made in Norway.
Decriminalize Drugs – Not Make Them Legal
The government “will stop punishing people who struggle but instead give them help and treatment,” Nicolas Wilkinson, health spokesman for the Socialist Left party, told Norwegian media outlet VG. “This is the start of a big rush reform. Now a big effort is being done to switch the system from punishment to help.” He went on to say “It is important for all parties involved in this that it is about large-scale reforms: how to support people and help them out of drug abuse.”
Sveinung Stensland, deputy chairman of the Storting’s health committee, told VG that “The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: Those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.”
Decriminalized Drugs and Jail Reform Works
Portugal, who is heavily influencing Norway’s decision, decriminalized drugs in 2001. Portugal had years of strict drugs laws and a traditional War on Drugs, which failed horribly. Drug use only increased along with crime. After decriminalizing drugs, overall drug use and crime declined. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation found that between 2001 and 2012 drug-related death, cases of HIV/AIDS, and overall daily drug use sharply declined.
This is a controversial debate, but it seems to work. Many organizations in Canada and the United States are calling for similar reform. Treating addiction is actually cheaper than incarceration, so not only would it save the public money, but it would lead people to a life that would make them productive members of society. There are few jails in the United States that offer significant help to addicts, and many end up returning to jail for the same untreated problem: their addiction.
One of the few studies of US jail addiction treatment programs found that methadone treatment participants at Rikers Island in New York (the first jail to offer such a program) were less likely to commit new crimes and more likely to continue treatment. A similar program in Australia found a sharp decrease of overdose deaths among ex-cons who participated.
Though opiate withdrawal is not in itself deadly or very dangerous, there have been cases of inmates dying in US jails from opiate withdrawal. This shows how little care they receive. The deaths are usually caused by dehydration because opiate withdrawal can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea.
Hopefully, Norway’s new plan takes effect and makes another example for the world that drug policy reform is strongly needed. Drug users need to be treated to get better and jails fail to offer this. Addiction is a powerful disease that often leaves sufferers feeling hopeless and unable to quit on their own. Offering government funded avenues for help will create safer communities and allow more tax money to be used toward better causes than over-incarceration, which is already a major problem in the United States.