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Norway & Drugs: Scandinavian country moves to decriminalize illicit drugs, rest of Europe likely to follow eventually

In a first for Scandinavian countries, but unlikely to be the last, Norway has moved to decriminalize the use of illicit drugs. Whilst this is just the starting point for the process of decriminalization and the government still needs to implement the directives from parliament with coherent public policy, the vote represents the current wind of change. In Europe the move towards decriminalization of illicit drugs is an awkward topic; many different countries view this change as a backwards step and even those countries which have pioneered new ways of handling drug use have attracted plenty of criticism. However it seems certain now that this is the direction of travel for drug use in most western countries and potentially worldwide.

The reasons are various but globally, attitudes and methods of dealing with recreational drug use have been vastly inadequate in the past, with serious sentencing attached to relatively minor offences. In many countries the widespread and common use of illegal drugs and pockets of significant drug dependency and addiction mean that the illegality model is not fit for purpose. The only way to help people manage their personal drug use and provide the state structures to protect and educate people is to allow drug use so it can be monitored, rather than imposing imputative criminal sentences on people that need help. What was seen in Norway is a positive step towards better drugs policies and attitudes.

In late 2017 the Norwegian parliament held a vote on the decriminalization of illegal drugs and the vote was passed with support from across the political spectrum including the Conservatives, Liberals, Labor Party and the Socialist Party. This move effectively directs the government to make plans to introduce decriminalization. Norway will therefore be the second country in Europe to head down this particular path after Portugal introduced decriminalization in 2001.

A common misconception is that decriminalization is effectively an endorsement from the state to say that drugs are legal and acceptable to use. This is not the case; the state still considers them in much the same light and providers of the drugs are still punished severely. There are two different molds emerging currently during a time when attitudes are changing. Legalization and Decriminalization are the two variants and they have different aims and outcomes.

A number of assessments have been made on the effects of decriminalization in Portugal and the results are unequivocal. There have been no major increases in drug use overall, with rates remaining largely flat, but over a longer period (since 2001) rates of use have declined and Portugal now has rates of use significantly lower than the European average.

Globally there are a few bastion countries which have adopted specific drugs policies that work for them but they have been very few and far between. Countries such as Uruguay, The Netherlands and Portugal have adopted various tactics such as cannabis legalization or complete decriminalization but they have been largely on their own in this debate. However, in 2016, the movement towards altering drugs policies to either decriminalize or legalize certain drugs is very strong. In particular the US is perhaps the driving force behind a lot of this change.


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