Many countries are discovering that the old ways of criminalizing drug use aren't always working. In courtrooms all over the world, people are starting to see people who use illicit drugs not as criminals deserving punishment but people struggling with medical conditions of substance abuse and addiction, and are in need of treatment.
This has lead to many "drug courts" that steer people towards treatment rather than jail time. The country of Norway was the leader in one such program, called the Narkotikaprogram, that allowed offenders to seek treatment instead of jail time.
While the Norwegian government is hailing this program as a success, it is inviting some controversy, as some feel it forces people in treatment who may not want or be ready for it. The conversation currently going on over this program brings important attention to many issues related to the best way governments, courts, and law enforcement can play a role in dealing with the challenges of drug abuse and addiction.
The 2014 European Drug Report reveals just how extensive the country's problem with substance abuse was. It found that, at 76 deaths for every million people, Norway has one of the highest rates of drug overdoses in Europe.
The article also reported that Norway was responsible for 40 percent of the continent's reported seizures of methamphetamines.Cecilia Malmström, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, spoke of claims that both cannabis and ecstasy are often sold and used quite openly in Norwegian cities.
Although people requesting treatment for heroin addiction has fallen from 59,000 in 2007 to 31,000 in 2012, that may be just because people are moving to other, synthetic drugs that may be even more dangerous. Clearly, drug use is a widespread public health problem that urgently cries out for a solution.
The Trial Program:
The Narkotikaprogram began in 2006, as a trial program in Oslo and Bergen, two of Norway's central cities. The measure allowed drug users to sign up for personalized treatment, working through their substance abuse issues with a team of experts and health specialists to determine the path to recovery that works for them.
Failure to meet the standards of the recovery program will result in jail time. Introduced by the Conservative Party, the legislation has found support among all the country's major political parties. The program is now set to go nationwide, immediately, after most people are considering it a great success.
However, this program is not without its discontents. Some on the right-wing are continuing to argue for keeping all narcotics possessions as criminal offenses, arguing a softening of these laws takes away the need to deter people away from substance abuse.
A different critique is offered by Norway's Association for Humane Drug Policy. Arild Knutsen of the group argues that Norway's policies constitute "forced treatment," because failure to comply with the program results in prison time.
Many people who seek treatment for an addiction issue will relapse, and Norway's program will treat these failures with harsher punitive measures,. Which the Association for HUman Drug Policy sees as ultimately worse, punishing the most severe and desperate users with the harsher punishment, keeping them further away from treatment.
They point to the 2014 report Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research, which, while generally praising the Oslo drug courts as a success, points out that only a third of people successfully complete the program. Such a steep dropout rate points to the challenge of recovery, and the need to continue to search for other solutions in order to properly deal with the problems of addiction.
It is a basic principle in recovery that only the addict themselves can truly be ready. No one can force a person to enter recovery. The process of getting sober and rebuilding a recovered life involves so much hard work and transformation that only someone willing to commit will be able to make it.
The government's program, while a noble shift towards helping people get access to help, continues to use the threat of jail time to "force" people into treatment. Some people may not be able or willing to enter treatment, and forcing them will do little good; the pull of addiction is simply too strong.
Some people have to be given more than just a second chance, but need many opportunities to come back before they hit a "rock bottom" or realize their need for change. How the legal system will be able to put this truth into practice is something we need to continue to think about.