Home » Side event: Nordic criminalization and decriminalization models – Lessons learned

Side event: Nordic criminalization and decriminalization models – Lessons learned

Organized by the Foreningen for Human Narkotikapolitikk with the support of the Correlation-European Harm Reduction Network and the International Drug Policy Consortium

Marie Nougier, International Drug Policy Consortium: The event will provide an overview of criminalisation and decriminalisation models in the Nordic countries. Solidarity with Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis there. Over the past few years, mounting evidence on harms associated with the criminalisation of people who use drugs: mass incarceration, racial profiling, police violence, high rates of infections of HIV, overdose deaths, stigma and discrimination, other blatant human rights violations. The reason why more countries are moving to decriminalise people who use drugs. Endorsed by 31 UN agencies as part of the Common Position on Drug Policy. Also in the Global HIV Strategy. Over 51 jurisdictions have adopted some form of decriminalisation. In Nordic countries, the debate is advancing fast. In the past year, Norway for instance has discussed decriminalisation nationally. This event will discuss these efforts in the Nordic countries.

Veronica Honkasalo, Member of The Parliament of Finland: An MP since 2019. Academic background on youth. Main focus as parliamentarian: human rights issues. My point of view is the human rights perspective on this issue. Finnish drug policy is prohibitionist. Serious drug offences are as illegal as drug use and related offences. The citizens of Finland have a positive attitude toward change, to decriminalise. Very few parliamentarians are willing to speak up for harm reduction and change in drug policies. The citizens’ initiative tabled in parliament for changes in drug laws was mostly shunned; I was the only one defending the Initiative. As well as scientists and academics, who are supportive of change. The most well known measures, for instance, in big cities, to reduce drug-related harms is health counselling – provided to drug users, including needle-and-syringe programmes, etc. But there is a huge need for more services and a change in drug policy. The Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible to coordinate the Finnish drug policy. The policy is based on Finnish international commitments on this matter. Our current government is very progressive in many issues, but many parties have openly said they’re not for decriminalisation and it wasn’t in the government platform. We have the most progressive government we can imagine but still reluctance to change. So hard to imagine what kind of change needed politically to make this happen. The Initiative that the city of Helsinki proposed to change the legislation to create a framework for safer consumption sites / overdose prevention sites; but attitudes towards this pilot were also quite negative. When I made a written question to the Minister, she said it was not going to happen because it wasn’t in the government programme. There’s a rift between the big cities and the government. In big cities we have experiences with these issues. The city of Helsinki produced a very comprehensive and clear report  on this. Outlining how safer consumption sites educates users on safer use, guide people toward services, reduce deaths and harms. Substance testing would provide support to inform people and guide people to reduce harms. This is particularly important because people who benefit from these are especially marginalised. I hope to hear more from our colleagues in the region about the success of these rooms. Drug deaths are rising in Finland and Northern European countries. And it’s already the highest in the EU. This concerns especially young adults and particularly men; so it’s a very topical issue. Even with the evidence, the facts…the atmosphere is so conservative in Parliament when it comes to these issues. It’s not about helping the people but politicians wanting to show how morally right they are and ‘good persons’ they are. That’s sad, because parliamentarians do not even show interest to look at the research, and the big international human rights organisations who, like Amnesty International, have changed their views on drugs. I’m a member of the Nordic Council and made an initiative there to gather more information about how Nordic countries are addressing this issue and how to align with human rights, and share information accordingly. So we will be having a big discussion on drug policy in the Nordic Council. To tell it briefly, Finland’s drug policy has been characterised by control and the criminal law. If we look at the usage of cannabis for medical reasons, this has even become stricter within the past few years. This is also sad and I’m invested in addressing this too. Attitudes of the population are changing towards more liberal drug policy. People support the idea of safer consumption sites, decriminalisation, the change will happen. There’s a big contradiction between the people and the Parliament when it comes to this issue. And parliamentarians do not have evidence-based arguments at the moment. We are taking mini-steps towards more progressive drug policy. We can see it in the initiative in Helsinki and the 50,000 signatures gathered by the Citizens Initiative.

Arild Knutsen, Association for Humane Drug Policy (FHN): We have a drug consumption room and now we have heroin assisted treatment in Norway for the last week! Last year, the proposal of the Conservative government to decriminalise was thrilling. It is still thrilling even if the Labour party now in power opposed it. It created a sea change. Civil society was the driving force behind this reform and strongly included in the process. The slogan ‘Support. Don’t Punish’ was finally embraced, although with a different understanding of ‘Support’. The report of the Conservative government said ‘from Punishment to Help’. Some people understood this as support. Others as means to ‘help’, understood as leading people to stop using drugs. This led to a division of drugs between: experimental, adult users, and people with severe dependence. The majority of Parliament thought they had to change the approach to people with severe dependence, maintaining punishment for the other two groups, The logic being that young people don’t know what’s good so they must be forced to take urine tests and conversations for a year to avoid punishment. If drug use is again detected, punishment must be considered. Adult recreational users to bear the burden of punishment to take responsibility for the illicit markets. Severe drug users are categorised as children or mentally disabled, so can’t be punished. This stigmatising attitude led to the turning down of the reform. A Good Samaritan law, however, came into force, which enables people to call services without facing prosecution. However, there are other changes. Drug testing of students and pupils is now against the law, the practice is finally stopped. Police bringing their dogs to schools to kick kids out of school has come to an end. It sparks an outrage when people mobilising for change are harassed. Attitudes in society are slowly shifting. Criminal responses are being moved away from drug users and towards people who mistreat drug users. Police are changing their way of treating drug use. Police representatives want that decriminalisation would rob them of their tools to prevent drug use; what they meant was urine samples, search cell-phones, home raids, etc…to find who provided them with drugs. The Attorney General explained to police that they cannot search suspected drug users with this . These practices are now subject to investigation by human rights institutions. In my view, one of the most interesting things happening is that the court system is reducing penalties in drug cases. In some cases, changing sentences from months in prison to a few weeks suspended sentence. The reason seems varied but one has to do with the fact that Parliament now agrees that people with drug dependence shouldn’t be punished, so why would courts do it? Constitutional challenge ongoing to say that drug dependence cannot be punished with criminalisation. However, we cannot criminalise only some users. Who is to decide what drug dependence is ‘severe’ enough not to be punished? The ground-breaking debate is still ongoing. The municipal authorities in Oslo are seeking a local pilot for decriminalisation. When big debate on decriminalisation started, people’s eyes were opened. Different parts of societies started to rethink what was considered right/wrong for decades. The debate on decriminalisation is not to be feared. It’s an opportunity for growth and human compassion. It’s still an ongoing thriller.

Henrik Tham, Professor Emeritus of Criminology at the Department of Criminology at Stockholm University: The Nordic Research Council for Criminology a few years ago sponsored a working group on drug policy. The question was what direction the drug policies of the five Nordic countries has been taken given the changing policies in the surrounding world. The result of the working group was published a few months ago as open access with the title Retreat or Entrenchment. Drug policies in the Nordic countries at a crossroads. The purpose of the book is not primarily to analyse the effects of drug policies in the Nordic countries. It does however contain a number of indicators that can be used to illustrate the effects of drug policies utilizing the variance between five countries that are similar in history, structure and culture. It then shows that Sweden clearly has the most punitive policy among the Nordic countries. The fines for possession of cannabis are the highest, the prison sentences for aggravated drug crimes are the longest and the number of drug crimes reported by the police are the most extensive. In addition, the country is the only one to use tests by force of body liquids for establishing consumption of drugs which is criminalized. These measures could then possibly be accepted if the detrimental use of drugs had diminished. However, Sweden has the highest number of drug related deaths among the Nordic countries and also ranks among the highest in the rest of Europe. Surveys of the number of persons with a problematic use of drugs were ended shortly after the turn of the century but up till then showed a doubling of the number of cases. Not only are the results of Swedish drug policy negative in terms of curbing harmful drug use. The costs of control are also substantial – an aspect that is almost never brought up in the political and public debate on drugs in Sweden. The urine tests, more than 40 000 per year, means violation of a central principle in law that the state should not punish acts directed against the person her- or himself if no one else is hurt. The criminalization of consumption as such also produces a very high number of crimes and criminals, close to 7 million crimes per year in Sweden as estimated by the National Council for Crime Prevention. The tests result in an increasing number of false positive, in the case of children under 18 around 50 per cent. The question can be raised what it does to the trust in the police when a child is taken by force to the police station on a false suspicion. The stop and search by the police for establishing drug consumption is discriminatory. It will be conducted more in poorer areas with many immigrants where fewer among the young use drugs according to surveys than in the richer areas with ethnic Swedes where smoking cannabis is more frequent among the young. At most almost one tenth of all police officers have been engaged in trying to combat drugs, primarily for use of drugs.  The question could be raised if this is an optimal use of the police force when the Police and political leaders complain about the shortage of police officers for fighting gang related shootings, a now most central issue in Swedish politics. These shootings are to a high degree connected to conflicts in the drug market. Another question to be raised is if there are other ways to regulate the drug market that could decrease the shootings that now result in a high number of killings. The increasing purchase of drugs for personal use on the internet could be one way, but has been met by proposals by the government for increasing criminalization and increases in the penalty scale. Means of coercion to be used by the Police have traditionally been most restrictive in a democracy like Sweden. Such means have now been introduced and expanded mainly with reference to the threat of drugs. Secret wiretapping increased four times from the 1970s to the 80s. Recently bugging has been legalized if there is suspicion of serious crimes. Again, narcotic crimes are central in the legitimizing of bugging. Sentences for drug crimes some years ago past the number of sentences for theft that historically has dominated the court statistics. More than one fourth in prison are in for drug crimes. Half of the inmates are classified as having a problematic use of drugs, and the question can be raised if that is the best place for doing something about harmful uses of drugs. Sweden has internationally claimed that it has pursued a successful drug policy relative to other countries. Neither in terms of reducing the detrimental effects of drug use nor in terms of the costs of control is this true.

Svala Jóhannesdóttir, Harm reduction specialist and advocate from Iceland: As many of you know, there’s been a lot of improvement in the situation of people who use drugs in Iceland, especially people who live with problematic drug use. I would like to  go over the recent years and what led this to the situation now, which is quite positive. In 2021, a population survey conducted by the Social Science Research Institution of the U of Iceland showed 60% were in favour of decriminalised possession of personal use for adults. Two years earlier, the number was 33%. In two years, support has doubled. This is massive. What advocacy led to this change? To start, I will mention the first harm reduction service in Iceland, opened in 2009 – very late compared to other european countries. It’s a mobile needle exchange clinic, run by the Red Cross. The words ‘harm reduction’ came into Icelandic society. Before this, the main discourse in Iceland around drug use was focused on abstinence, prohibition. The language around people who use drugs was very dehumanising. This project brought about a new discourse, to understand the importance of harm reduction. 2010 – Harm reduction approach introduced in a shelter. These two projects: needle exchange service and shelter for women, were the foundation of harm reduction in Iceland. Through their efforts, the harm reduction message went into the public, institutions, and healthcare providers. Slowly, the live condition of active drug users in Iceland and people experiencing homelesness received increased media coverage. This created awareness of the psychosocial factors that affect problematic drug use. People became more empathetic and supportive. It was about educating the public of this correlation on how drug addiction develops. Which created empathy. Through this constant advocacy from harm reduction services and grassroots groups and the Pirate Party, the harm reduction approach has become more accepted by the city of Reykjavík and the country. This created the foundations for a change in the way we respond to problematic drug use in Iceland. This made it possible to take the next step in Iceland, and bring the discussion into the Parliament. When it comes to the bills for decriminalisation and for a safer ocnumpstuoon room. On 10 March, the first safer consumption room was opened in Reykjavík. The bill was introduced in Parliament in 2020 and two years later it’s open. When it comes to the bill for decriminalising drugs for personal use – That bill has been tabled three times. Introduced for the first time in 2019 – 9 MPS (out of 63) – ⅝ political parties led by the Pirate Party. The following bill wasn’t passed. The third bill was introduced in January by an MP in the Pirate Party. We’ll see where that goes. It’s important to bring the bills into parliament because it creates a debate in Icelandic society about drug related issues. This opens up the idea that an alternative approach is possible. So, grassroots organisations (local NGOs constantly advocating and talking about the importance of harm reduction and political change) and political advocacy have set the foundations for a major shift in the debate in Iceland. Also, Iceland is small, which facilitates advocacy because we’re less people and also politicians and the media are more accessible and approachable. I hope decriminalisation will succeed. If not with this bill, with the next one.


What is the role of civil society and academics?

Veronica Honkasalo: My party doesn’t have a unified position on this but I look forward for change during our Congress this summer. But the role of civil society has been absolutely crucial, as well as the young parties and young wings of parties who have a more liberal approach.

Henrik Tham: The Nordic welfare state concept, where you take care of people who experience problems creates inroads that should be levereaged. But we see an increase in punitiveness over the past decades. And for me that’s about the neoliberal framework of reference, which blames individuals, considered individually responsible, and thus punishable, for the markets associated with their use. And, at the same time, we know it’s not the wealthier people who get punished. So it’s an approach that leads to inequality.

Svala Jóhannesdóttir: We have the benefit of the welfare state because discursively we can appeal to the importance of taking care of everyone, not just some. To awaken empathy among the public was absolutely crucial. The old-school thought of ‘addiction as brain disease’ or ‘this is their fault’ creates barriers in empathy and support, it’s disempowering and individualising. The government now accepts harm reduction because the public recognises its importance.

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