Home » Side event. Ensuring human rights protection in Nordic drug policy

Side event. Ensuring human rights protection in Nordic drug policy

Organised by the Foreningen for Human Narkotikapolitikk with the support of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, the International Drug Policy Consortium and RIO.

Marie Nougier, International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC): Good morning everyone, thank you for joining us for this side event on Nordic drug policies, which is being organised by the Norwegian Association for Humane Drug Policy (FHN), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and RIO, as well as the government of Iceland, the Norwegian Ministry of Health and Care Services and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. My name is Marie Nougier and I am the Head of Research and Communications at the International Drug Policy Consortium, which is a global network of over 190 NGOs that come together to promote drug policies that advance social justice and human rights. We have seen over the past few years at the CND that there are still a number of countries that continue to resist the consideration of human rights when discussing drug policy. Many drug policies worldwide continue to be entrenched in a punitive rationale, with law enforcement practices that often disproportionately affects specific groups such as women, ethnic groups and people living in poverty; disproportionate criminal justice responses that are filling already overcrowded prisons; and an ongoing lack of availability and access to life-saving health, harm reduction and treatment services for people who use drugs. In this side event, we will be focusing on Nordic countries in particular. We chose to highlight drug policies in Nordic countries specifically because countries from the region share similar social, welfare and economic policies. The Nordic welfare model is built on the idea of ensuring positive health outcomes for all, and Nordic countries also share a common respect for democracy, the rule of law, equality and human rights. But in the area of drug policy, Nordic countries have traditionally sought to achieve the objective of a ‘drug free society’, with an approach focusing on interdiction and criminalisation including for drug use. In recent years, however, there has been a shift in the public discourse which has led to unprecedented political debates to move towards a health-based approach to drug use. This has resulted in initiatives to decriminalise drug use and possession in the Parliaments of Iceland, Denmark and Norway, and cannabis law reform discussions in Finland. It is in this context that we are holding this side event today, which is a follow up to a previous side event we organised last year focusing specifically on decriminalisation in the region, and for those interested, we can share the YouTube recording. The objective of our discussion today will be to discuss how well human rights are reflected in Nordic drug policies, and highlight ongoing initiatives and other possible options for reform in the region. We have an awesome panel with us today, so without further ado, I will introduce our first speaker: Eivind Digranes, Advisor at the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution. He will be presenting some of the key findings and conclusions from a report that has just been published on human rights and drug policy in Norway. Eivind will unfortunately need to leave us to speak at another side event happening at the same time on Nordic drug policies. So before he leaves, does anybody have any burning questions for him before he has to go? We will now turn to our second speaker, Haldora Mogensen, who is a Member of Parliament in Iceland. Haldora will update us on drug policy reform initiatives in Iceland. Our third speaker is Nanna Gotfredsen, from the NGO Streetlawyer, and who is also a Member of Parliament in Denmark. And our fourth and final speaker is Arild Knutsen, from FHN, the leading organisation of people who use drugs in the drug policy reform movement in Norway, and who will tell us a bit more about his work and movements for reform in the country. Now room for questions and comments. Thanks so much to all of our speakers and for FHN, and in particular John Melhus and Arild Knutsen for putting this event event together! And also thanks to Istvan of the Rights Reporter Foundation who has been recording the event. 

Eivind Digranes, Norwegian National Human Rights Institution: Independent public body to promote and protect human rights. Drug use and Human Rights is a report we produced last year. Primarily because there are few reports analysing our country’s drug policy through the lens of human rights. The purpose is to raise awareness about human rights obligations in the field of human rights and how they’re implemented in Norway. Available on our website. Several areas: criminalisation of use and possession of drugs for personal use: we looked at obligations in relevant conventions against the obligations and the drug control conventions and we conclude there is no obligation to decriminalise these actions; but also no obligation to criminalise. So, leeway for politicians. Human rights are to be interpreted dynamically. Recent practices from ECHR suggest criminal legal action against people who use drugs can constitute a violation of Art 8 on privacy rights. If sanctions are disproportionate, they may constitute a right to privacy depending on the case. Several international human rights bodies recommend decriminalisation to implement better right to health and children’s rights. These recommendations aren’t binding but they are a reflection of professional assessments by international bodies on the matter. The second area is the use of coercive measures in minor cases of drug offences. Last year, a report by the Director of public prosecution revealed instances of coercive measures in minor drug cases not in accordance with criminal procedure requirements. They can violate the right to privacy of the ECHR, so it’s a human rights issue. This has improved recently but it’s important to follow up whether this will continue to improve. We also looked at health and care services for people who use drugs and identified room for concern —one is when it comes to protection against violence because current measures to protect drug users from violence are not sufficiently compliant with human rights obligations, including the Istanbul Convention. We looked at control measures in OST, examples being for instance urine samples taken under supervision, regular attendance for distribution of medicines —it’s complicated and it’s unclear whether these measures are in interference with human fights but they are problematic. We looked at healthcare services for adults with co-occurring mental health and drug use disorders. They challenge the rights to the highest attainable standard of health. Lastly, within healthcare services, we looked at services for children. Article X of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (…) Duty to prevent the use of illegal drugs among children and provide adequate treatment and harm reduction —3 concerns: Drug tests, healthcare services with co-occuring mental health disorders and drug use disorders and (…). All in our report. And then we looked at legal protection from discrimination —as discussed in this space in Vienna, stigma is something that came up re: people using drugs. What is the status of legal protections against the discrimination of people who use drugs in international and domestic law? Little in international law. But the UN CESCR does have comments that suggest that certain forms of drug addiction can be said to have legal protection. In Norway, if we look at domestic legislation, people suffering from drug addiction should have protection but there are questions with regards to whether this protection is effective enough and whether it covers everyone who should be covered. We hope this can be a contribution to improve the implementation of human rights in the field of drug policy in Norway and other Nordic countries. We should consider international standards and implement them nationally. Lastly, there are many viewpoints when it comes to responses to drug use —heated discussion here in Vienna! That said, it’s important to note that no matter what solutions are chosen, fundamental human rights should be followed because people who use drugs do not forfeit their human rights.

Haldóra Mogensen, MP, Iceland: There has been a shift in thinking about the issues of drug use, especially in Iceland where in just 2 years, the support for decriminalisation of drug use has doubled. The change in direction for drug policy is now tangible for the first time, even inevitable. A lot of this change has to do with the pirate party who brought the conversation about harm reduction into the conversation. A former minister of health, she brought forth the policy about supervised injection sites. The police were saying they cannot do it, it is impossible to look past a criminal act, but the welfare committee said well, then we have to decriminalise to make this possible.  After a conversation where I realised that the health minister at this time would not bring forth legislation to decriminalise, I decided to. The support has grown so much that we cannot ignore this call anymore. It is related to our understanding of addiction. Understanding what this is is key to understanding how to reduce problematic drug use. And also key to understanding how much harm our current policy is causing. It is not currently based on evidence. As a lawmaker we have to ensure we are using evidence-based policy. A quote I often turn to is that addiction is not a choice, it is not a moral failure or weakness of character, which is how our society depicts addiction. It is not an inherited brain disease, it is a response to human suffering. This is what the literature is telling us. Addiction is an attempt to escape overwhelming suffering. It’s in the nature of human beings to escape suffering. A person with back pain is prescribed medication. But when an individual is suffering from the pain of traumatic events which have never been treated, when they turn to self-medication we stigmatise them, punish them and sometimes imprison them. We brand them as a criminal, marginalise people, label them as a criminal. They are denied access to what they need the most – we alienate them and deny them of social connection. If we really think about it, it’s a grossly inhumane way to approach an individual who wants nothing more than to relieve themselves of suffering. Instead of helping people we wage a war on them. The war on drugs in Iceland is alive and kicking still. Like most other countries it got serious in the 60s and 70s. Fearmongering and punishment derived from the United States based on the idea that we can somehow build a drug free world. Manufacturing panic and punishing everyone involved. Over the last few years, things are finally changing for the better. The concept of harm reduction is gaining widespread attention. These ideas that have fuelled the punitive approach however are still present. Let’s pause to think about the idea of a drug free world – it is a fantasy. We will never have it. Drugs have been in our culture for as far as we can remember. Not even humans, I doubt you will find an animal that hasn’t been drawn towards an intoxication experience. It is ridiculous to think of a drug free world. Around 10% of users have a drug problem experience. Our policy should focus on this 10%. What we are doing now isn’t working. In the era of prohibition drug use has increased along with drug-related problems. I actually don’t think a drug policy alone is the culprit. I’m going to challenge the underlying ideology because it’s not that long ago that western society became convinced that individuals should compete for limited resources where one man’s death is another man’s bread. The problem with this ideology of individualism that permeates our society is that it is not grounded in reality – like our drugs policy it is nonsense. It’s completely at odds with everything we know about our human nature. Humans have evolved as a group because we have learnt to together. Its deeply rooted to seek out our tribe. Yet we have never been as divided and disconnected. Yet we have never been as lonely and detached as a society. It’s no surprise that we are seeing an increase in depression and drug use. Instead of facing this fact, we continue treating the symptoms rather than the root. Enforcing prohibition globally costs over 100 billion dollars a year. We are spending a trillion dollars around the world every 10 years – a mind boggling amount of resources that is unfathomable to even think about. The war on drugs has caused unimaginable suffering against our most vulnerable and marginalised populations. As a side effect we have created a huge criminal market rampant with violence. Let’s imagine for a while that this money had been invested in social measures to help the most vulnerable populations, if it had been used to design treatments based on the integration of individuals into society who are suffering from trauma. Then perhaps we could pride ourselves on being a society that puts human rights at the forefront of society. We have the resources we just have to funnel them in the right places.

Nanna W. Gotfredsen, Streetlawyer and MP, Denmark: I’ve been a street lawyer for 25 year doing outreach, street lawyering for people who use drugs mainly. Now I’m an MP but I’m not a politician. I’m a street lawyer trying to develop a discipline of street lawyering in parliament because I think it’s needed. The changes that we have managed to get through in Denmark, we have sen progress, they have not happened because of politicians —they’ve happened because we pushed and fought so hard for it from civil society, from the bottom up. And my hope is that we will see progress from politicians as well in the years to come. I’m not a politician. We talk about Denmark in the Nordic countries. We call them welfare states because we have a universal healthcare system. People who use drugs are included, have treatment rights, patients rights. But the reality is different. We see people denied essential medicines.We se e people denied being admitted to hospitals. Denied what they need when they are dependent on opioids, for instance. They are denied withdrawal treatment when they are in treatment when they are admitted for infections and other illnesses and they are not admitted long enough —maybe a few hours. Young people die of infections as if this was 100 years ago before the invention of penicillin. It happens only to people who use drugs. On paper, were a welñfare state. In reality, it’s quite different. We have had a mini-decriminalisation since 2007 —where users are not punished for possession of small amounts of drugs. 16 years later, they are still punished, the law is so complex that people who use drugs cannot claim it and plead it. Police officers do not know or understand the law. We need clear laws on this complex issue. Despite the progress, people are denied their rights in denmark. Treatment guarantees since 2003 are not enough. Mini-decriminalisation is not enough. People continue to die in large numbers. Despite safer consumption sites since 2012, we have the same high mortality rate. We should really consider what to do. Something needs to be done. I’m here with hope. I have to be hopeful to withstand seeing so many people die. Including at a very early age. If we look at the basis of the government, the written basis, we are looking at dignity for the most vulnerable people, about changing policies and laws and attitudes and views when it comes to our most vulnerable members of society. As a street lawyer Ive said for many years that prohibition is a disaster. It is a disaster. I’m saying it now as a member of parliament: Prohibition is a disaster. We should have known because history told us. We talk about the criminalised drugs as ‘controlled’ substances —we’re not in control. Our kids and younger can buy so called controlled drugs everywhere, we’re not in control. What we have is a loss of control. And pèople who use drugs are paying a very high price. And we do too as societies as a whole. We need to step up, be guided by human rights, clear directions from the UN, to start with dignity. 

Arild Knutsen, Norwegian Association for Humane Drug Policy —FHN: we have to be guided by human rights and by drug user representatives. In the context of human rights in Nordic drug policy, we are headed in the right direction and faster than ever before. Even the country that prides itself as a human rights champion has room for improvement. It is a strength for any country to have itself scrutinised for its human rights, and I hope many other countries follow this example. A conservative government suggested reform with criminalisation previously in Norway. It was to advance human rights. Please remember that decriminalisation of drug use is strongly supported by the entire UN system through the common position. The parliament turned the suggestion down but the discussion is still going strong. The courts first started to reduce penalties in drug cases changing sentences from months in prison to a few weeks suspended sentence. The Supreme court then decided that those with substance use disorder would no longer receive punishment for their own personal use. In one tried case, a recreational user was let off with probation for 10g of amphetamine due to personal circumstances. Norwegian society has really started taking consideration of the wellbeing of people who this applies rather than blindly punishing them for the sake of the society. The court system is leading up to a more humane policy than the previous government suggested. Attorney General has previously instructed the police that they suspect a person to be possessing drugs, thus the person should no longer be stopped, searched or arrested. If they doubt whether the person is addicted, then the benefit of the doubt should be given to the person. It seems that the police have now stopped this practice as well as bringing people in for drug testing. During this extensive development the current gov is planning a new drug reform. But one issue that the current gov really seemed to consider is the principle of proportionality. What is a proportionate reaction? This is a key issue but at the same time we are seeing some troubling signals from some of our neighbouring areas. In Sweden the response to drug use is being scaled up, sentencing is becoming harsher, political rhetoric blames drug users for crime. We have seen this many times before in history and we know the results. More stigma, more damage and less positive health outcomes. We hope this will end because there are alternatives. I hope Norway can be an inspiration to us all, especially to the Nordic countries. We have a unique possibility to find other ways to react to drug use. In the lead up to the decrim reform, Norway did extensive research for a year and they found that criminalising drug use does not prevent drug use, it just creates problems. It is actively counterproductive. Now we owe each other extensive research on whether police should prioritise drugs use. Since police have taken two steps back, it has opened the door for social workers to take two steps forward. Now the police can prioritise serious crimes, even such crimes that traumatise people and create a lot of trouble that people use drugs to be able to bear with. Also, since the police have taken two steps back they have seized more drugs than in many many years. They have increased seizures to almost twice more than the past decade. It is time to acknowledge that drug users have a vulnerability to exposure to crime and must be protected. Police must change their practice from criminalisation to behaviour regulation. We want drug users to have the same protection of the law that everyone else benefits from. A police officer said to me recently – I think there are other industries that can do drug prevention much better than we can. The authorities have taken into consideration and what the discussion ,mainly is about is the follow up after arrest. But why arrest someone for drug use at all? What we’re missing is a concrete discussion about police, about oppression and human rights violations. Police control instead of respecting human rights. It is wrong to talk about de-stigmatisation without this perspective.

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