Norwegian Cities Consider Radical Approach To Heroin Problem

By May Wilkerson 12/02/15

New leadership in certain cities has led to a new approach to the country's severe heroin problem.

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Several cities in Norway are considering a ground-breaking approach to the country’s severe heroin problem. Under new local leadership, in addition to providing traditional replacement therapies, like methadone, local leaders in the cities of Bergen and Oslo are pushing to legalize a medical form of injectable heroin to treat users who are most at-risk.

The proposed drug policy would involve diamorphine, a medical version of heroin that has been proven in trials to help addicts who are unresponsive to methadone. According to past trials, use of this therapy led to "major reductions" in use of street heroin, as well as "major disengagement from criminal activities" and "marked improvements in social functioning" among users.

The ultimate goal would be to wean people off the drug entirely. But in the interim, this treatment could help bring addicts into a safer environment while curbing the street crime related to heroin use and dealing.

Norway has the highest mortality rate from heroin in Western Europe, with 70 drug-related deaths per million people in 2013, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drugs Addiction. Attempts to criminalize the drug have only increased isolation of drug users’ from medical help and treatment.

"We can't go on criminalizing our drug users,” said Kim Arnetvedt, a member of the Association for a Humane Drug Policy and one of an estimated 1,100 regular heroin users in Bergen. Though he has passed in and out of medical rehabilitation programs, Arnetvedt says he is suspicious of the health system that has close ties to law enforcement and makes "every day of addiction miserable." He hopes the new policy would help establish trust between heroin users and health professionals.

In Norway’s capital of Oslo, the new local government has sanctioned a safe injecting room where users can shoot up with their own gear inside, with health professionals nearby in case of an overdose. But a “small number” of addicts still refuse treatment, either due to immunity to methadone or suspicion of any public assistance. Isolation from treatment and medical help puts people at a much higher risk of death from an overdose.

In Bergen, more than 90% of the city's heroin addicts are receiving methadone treatment, according to Ola Joesendal, deputy director of Bergen's Haukeland Hospital. "But for a very small amount of addicted people it is not possible to establish contact through the (methadone) maintenance program," he said. "If we have the opportunity to reach them through heroin, then they can be reached."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.