Norway Voted to Decriminalize All Drugs. Should America Follow Suit?

Norway’s decision to push drug felons through treatment is a huge step forward.


The question of whether to punish criminals or attempt to reform them is not new. While some are for maximum enforcement, including solitary confinement and the death penalty, others take the more humane route of trying to rehabilitate criminals to integrate back into society. 

This question is especially heated when discussing drugs. America’s war has been a continual failure, from crack in the eighties through to opioids today. Defining what a drug is, how it can and can’t be used, and who can use it has proven to be more about politics and corporate interests than biology. Sugar is the most potent and deadly drug on the planet today, yet it is widely available, cheap, and celebrated. 

So integrated into the fabric of society has sugar become that even the mention of it as a “drug” is certain to incite scoffs and sneers. We know alcohol is a drug, yet since it’s also wildly sanctioned (and wildly taxed) we consider it not to be that bad. Ditto cigarettes, even if those two kill hundreds of thousands more people a year than marijuana. Pull back far enough and everything we ingest is a drug, since everything results in a chemical reaction in our bodies. 

Some countries are realizing this. Norway recently voted to completely decriminalize illegal drugs, as well as send offenders through treatment instead of prison. While parliamentary support for this bill has passed, it still must find its way through the government. 

Sveinung Stensland, a deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee, commented on the decision:

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. 

This is no sudden decision; Norwegian politicians have been debating this for years. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in HIV infections, overdoses, and drug-related crime. In 2001, for example, HIV infection affected 104.2 new cases per million; by 2015 that number had dropped to 4.2 cases. 

Another big reaction was in social stigmatism. As The Guardian reports: 

The language began to shift, too. Those who had been referred to sneeringly as drogados (junkies)—became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as “people who use drugs” or “people with addiction disorders.” This, too, was crucial.

João Goulão was one of two men behind Portugal’s first CAT (Centros de Atendimento a Toxicodependentes, a rehab facility) in 1988. He helped draft legislation for decriminalization in 1997. He notes that Portugal is a conservative country. The decision was more financial and social than about liberty and freedom. But drug use in the eighties and nineties had spread to affect every family in the nation: 

There was a point when you could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’

Twenty years later American families are struggling with an opioid epidemic that is still gaining force—fentanyl deaths increased 540 percent between 2014-2016. The 2017 data so far are not promising. 

It is well known that Richard Nixon tied addiction to crime in order to suppress minorities and political radicals in the seventies. That mindset forced American legislators—and the American public—to relate certain substances as bad and others as good, or least benign. Since opioids are tied to the white working class, there has been much criticism of opioids being treated as an opportunity for compassion and understanding while crack, an inner city problem, was seen as a blight to be eradicated. 

Full decriminalization might be the only way to sift through the scattered and conflicting reports on how substances act in our bodies. By understanding what drugs do and how they are either helpful or harmful, we can make appropriate decisions on how to treat their users.

Psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD—all considered Schedule One substances, meaning they supposedly have no medical value—are proving to be clinically relevant for treating anxiety, depression, and end-of-life care. Marijuana is quickly becoming decriminalized on a state-by-state level as the positive effects of cannabinoids continue to roll in. 

Norway’s decision to push felons through treatment is a step forward, though hopefully more detailed consideration of what drug each person is caught with will be taken into consideration. Heroin makes for a good candidate; marijuana, not so much, unless abuse level is truly crippling. That’s the problem with blanket regulations on disparate substances: you’re unfairly equating dissimilar drugs. 

That said, progress is progress. Let’s hope America follows suit. First decriminalization, then a government-funded increase in technology and sugar addiction centers to combat our two main culprits. 

One can dream.

--

Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

What should schools teach? Now is the moment to ask.

The future of learning will be different, and now is the time to lay the groundwork.

What should schools teach? Now is the moment to ask. | Caroline ...
Future of Learning
  • The coronavirus pandemic has left many at an interesting crossroads in terms of mapping out the future of their respective fields and industries. For schools, that may mean a total shift not only in how educators teach, but what they teach.
  • One important strategy moving forward, thought leader Caroline Hill says, is to push back against the idea that getting ahead is more important than getting along. "The opportunity that education has in this moment to really push students and think about what is the right way to live, how do we do it and how do we do it in a way that doesn't hurt or rob the dignity of other people?"
  • Hill also argues that now is the time for bigger swings and for removing the barriers that limit education. The online space is boundary free and provides educators with new opportunities to connect with students around the world.

Keep reading Show less

Here are 3 things white people can do right now to help #BLM

Remaining silent is being complicit.

Demonstrators pause for a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer, in McCarren Park in the borough of Brooklyn on June 3, 2020 in New York City.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Protests around the world are demanding an end to police discrimination and violence against black citizens in America.
  • Author and activist Dax-Devlon Ross offers advice on how white people can help during this moment.
  • Ross's suggestions include thinking and voting locally, supporting black-owned businesses, and practicing self-reflection.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…