The Dramatic Conversion of Norway's Health Minister to Drug Policy Reform Is a Remarkable Moment for All of Us Who Use Drugs

Oct 05 2016

The Dramatic Conversion of Norway’s Health Minister to Drug Policy Reform Is a Remarkable Moment for All of Us Who Use Drugs

October 5th, 2016

“Yes, we love this country.” So begin the lyrics of the Norwegian national anthem. As a someone who is addicted to drugs, though, I have not felt much of this love from my country for as long as I can remember.

My government has harassed, punished and chased me and the likes of me since we adopted the American War on Drugs nearly 50 years ago. During the last five years alone, the weakest and most isolated patient group in the country—people who use illegal drugs—have been fined for the total amount of 48 million Norwegian Kroner, something like $6 million, in Bergen and Oslo alone. People have been arrested for use and possession, and had their lives worsened and destroyed by a punitive regime in the name of good morals and policy.

But not any more—if we to believe today’s statement by Bent Høie, our minister of health from the governing center-right party. He wrote in an article that he will now advise his party and the government to no longer pursue its War on Drugs—to no longer harass, arrest or jail people who use or are addicted to them.

This is incredible, because for us Norwegian drug policy reformers—whether or not we have drugs in our own bloodstreams—this man has been our long-time adversary.

Just months ago, Høie gave a speech in New York at the UNGASS summit, where he stood his ground and defended the status quo. Now, he has turned almost 180 degrees. Yes, many things are still not perfect, and even though his announcement mentions Portugal (where all drugs have been decriminalized since 2001) as an inspiration, we are not that far South just yet—but we are on our way!

Even though Høie still insists on drugs being illegal, and even though we who use them are still going to be under the threat of forced urine controls and more, he has made an unambiguous promise to us that, if he has anything to do with it, the arrests, incarceration and unmanageable fines are going to end.

We who use or are addicted to illegal drugs are a large group of people, within media, politics, academia, culture and every other field. For years, many of us have worked diligently, and against the odds, to persuade Høie and his colleagues to reverse their punitive approach. If you had asked any of us even earlier this year, we would not have dreamt that Høie would come out of the closet as a progressive drug policy reformer.

When he and I met in New York during the UNGASS summit, we barely spoke to one another, but communicated instead through the media—even though our hotels were next door. In his speech, as I mentioned,  he essentially stood his ground, although he hinted at moving in a more health-centered direction when it comes to drugs. Trying to encourage him, I replied through an article in the newspaper Morgenbladet for which I am a columnist: “Bent Høie, you tried in a courageous manner at the UN.”

For these remarks I received some criticism from my hardline activist colleagues, accusing me of giving him too much credit.

They were quick to remind me that his suggested “Third Way”—referring to some kind of middle position in-between the most progressive countries such as Portugal, Canada and Uruguay, and the drug-war “axis of evil” countries like the Philippines, China, Indonesia and Iran—is an illusionary one. That his speech was full of rhetoric verging on hypocrisy, when he, as the minister of health, was largely responsible for the harassment, arrests and fines for people addicted to drugs.

That criticism struck me. And at our next encounter—in the backroom of one of Norway’s biggest morning news TV shows—I reminded Høie that if he didn’t soon put actions behind his words, I would again directly accuse him of being responsible for the inhumane predicament in which he and his colleagues put me and my fellow drug users.

He gave me a hug in response, and told me that he was listening, but that he still firmly believed that the prohibitionist line was the way to go about things, because the deterrent effects of criminalization outweighed the negative consequences. I replied that he was wrong, although I was glad to hear that he was monitoring the situation constantly to reinvestigate his viewpoints. Now, I read it as a clear hint that he was about to move towards a new approach—he was not just ready to tell me yet.

I returned to my keyboard and hammered out an article where in which I slammed Høie and his boss, our prime minister Erna Solberg, for not being more vocal in speaking up against a delegation from Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, which at the time was at a congress center in Oslo brokering a peace treaty with the Maoist guerrillas with the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs acting as mediators. I again reminded Høie that his “Third Way” was a rhetorical cop-out.

Either you are with our our you are against us, I wrote. There is no essential philosophical difference between Duterte sending his death squads out to kill drug users, and your government encouraging the police to chase, harass and hand out prison sentences and fines—only the vehicle and the extent of the oppression are different.

For this I also received harsh criticism—this time from my less confrontational activist colleagues—and was labeled as unprofessional and irrational, told that any kind of comparison between the situations in Norway and the Philippines was inappropriate.

Off course being killed and being fined are completely different things, and my critique of Bent Høie may well have been disproportionate—but at the same time I still believe the principle is the same: punishing sick and disadvantaged people and criminalizing a patient group in a way that is both counterproductive and inhumane.

My fellow drug users of all countries deserve to be helped, and treated as patients, not as criminals. We should not only be recognized as human beings with the same rights as all others, but also viewed as potential resources—as I expressed in my own speech to the UN earlier this year.

Well Mr Høie, today is the day I, on behalf of over 10,000 of my fellow addicted people in Norway, can finally identify you as a true minister of health—for us, too, not only for people with cancer, diabetes and heart diseases.

Today we can absorb the fact that you, as the most powerful health politician in Norway, finally see us as both human beings full of resources and worthy patients. That you, Mr. Høie, will work to protect and care for us, just as you have diligently done for all other patient groups in this country during your time in office.

Today we can finally sing our national anthem together, without shame, guilt or fear: “Yes we love this country.” Because, today, thanks to your announcement, we can finally feel that our country also loves us.

 Sturla Haugsgjerd is a Norwegian journalist and activist, and a spokesperson for users and dependents at the Association for a Safer Drug Policy. His last piece for The Influence was: “Yes, I’m Actively Addicted to Heroin—And Shaming Me Doesn’t Help.”