Norway’s New Controversial Approach to Drug Treatment

By Zachary Siegel 02/22/16

Hailed by the government as a success, critics argue that it forces people into treatment. 

Norway’s New Controversial Approach to Drug Treatment
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Norway is implementing a new approach to treat drug users, one that expands its current drug court program. Instead of sending drug users to prison, Norwegian courts now have thepower to sentence convicted drug users to rehabilitation.

The measure, called narkotikaprogram, was trialled in the cities of Oslo and Bergen in 2006. It gave drug users an ultimatum to avoid prison by signing up for substance use treatment. The treatment was tailored to each individual drug user by a multidisciplinary team of experts and health specialists. 

“As the evaluation shows that the pilot project regarding the drug program has been successful in Oslo and Bergen, Norwegian authorities want the program to be available in the whole country,” a spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice told Quartz.

This new approach comes to Norway to rein in its startling rate of drug overdose fatalities; at 69.6 per million, it’s the second highest in the European Union. Now that the program is going nationwide, the hope is that it will “prevent criminality” and promote “equal treatment within the legal system.” Like US drug courts, failure to meet the conditions set by the court could result in a prison sentence. Only time will tell if this initiative cuts overdose rates. 

The new legislation was introduced by Norway’s Conservative party, and has resounding support from the majority of political parties in the Norwegian parliament. However, the program is not without its critics, who see it as forcing people into treatment. 

John Melhus, a spokesperson for The Norwegian Association for Humane Drug Policies, told Quartz that “Norway’s expanded drug court program is, if anything, worse. It is effectively a form of forced treatment.”

Melhus argues the government’s evaluation of the program in Oslo and Bergen was biased. Citing a 2014 report by the Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research, he says that only a third of drug users ever completed the program, leaving a steep dropout rate. Melhus added that the program relies on “intrusive supervised urine controls” and will in fact “punish the most disadvantaged drug addicts more severely.”

When the Ministry of Justice was asked to comment on these criticisms they refused, but said that “The treatment is voluntary and requires the consent of the convicted person.”

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.