What happened to Norway's drug policy reform?
What happened to Norway's drug policy reform?
Norway's decriminalization bill is officially dead, but may be revived in the near future.
Today, on June 3, the Norwegian parliament rejected the government's bill proposing the decriminalization of illicit consumption, possession and acquisition of drugs for personal use in limited amounts. Instead, the following policy changes were made:

  1. Municipal drug counseling units like those proposed in the decriminalization bill will be established, and users will be able to have fines suspended on the condition that they attend counseling. However, the cases will still appear on users' criminal records.
  2. Consumption and petty possession offenses on someone's criminal record shall no longer appear during full background checks provided more than three years have passed since the last offense. However, it is possible that any such offense from before the enactment of this rule will still appear.
  3. Users of illicit drugs shall not risk prosecution for consumption or minor possession that police become aware of due to users contacting emergency services or reporting other crimes. This rule will not be written in law, however, and police may use the information gathered to establish probable cause in future cases or for administrative purposes.
  4. Users of illicit drugs shall not be subject to disproportionate administrative reactions, and drivers' licenses shall not be revoked unless there is reason to believe that someone's drug use affects their driving. However, it is unclear what concrete changes this entails.
  5. The government shall ensure that it is no longer possible to be sentenced to prison for consumption or petty possession. However, such sentencing hardly ever occurs in practice, and the law will not be changed without further inquiry into what other law changes may be necessary in order to ensure adequate police powers.

Many may wonder how such a long-awaited reform, one that was even praised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a "new good practice model", could culminate in such a pitiful result. While several unforeseen circumstances have interfered with the Norwegian decriminalization process in its final stages, including a pandemic that delayed the final bill and impeded the government's ability to raise adequate public awareness about the reform, most of the blame can be said to lie with the Norwegian Labour Party.

The Labour party was expected to complete the parliamentary majority needed to secure the reform after the Progress Party – who opposed decriminalization, but conceded in government negotiations – exited the government in 2020. On April 16th of this year, however, Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre unexpectedly decided to oppose decriminalization, effectively killing the bill's chances of being passed as two thirds of the party's national congress voted with him. While originally having been part of the parliamentary majority that urged on decriminalization, the Labour party broke ranks to launch its own, much less progressive drug policy reform.

While the government's reform would have decriminalized drug consumption and the acquisition and possession of quite realistic amounts of any drug for personal use, Labour eschewed decriminalization in favor of a "Good Samaritan" rule for smaller drug amounts – which it had previously held to be unnecessary, but was forced to concede as cases of users being prosecuted after calling emergency services made the news. Labour also called for increasing the use of diversion schemes for youth and first time offenders as well as limiting the time that the most petty drug offenses show up during background checks. Additionally, they proposed to exempt dependent users from criminal culpability in cases of consumption and petty possession, effectively "decriminalizing" only for this user group.

In the weeks that have passed since the national congress' decision, the Labour party's handling of the drug policy reform has been criticized in Norwegian news and social media by government and civil society representatives alike. Many see Labour's newfound stance as a purely strategic move in anticipation of the national elections this fall, where they are poised to take office alongside the anti-drug Centre Party and compete for the position of prime minister.

Several progressive Labour politicians have criticized their own party for showing a lack of solidarity with the marginalized groups that will now still be criminalized – citing research showing that working class youth are disproportionately affected by Norway's drug laws. Meanwhile, users have accused the party of "betraying" them and exacerbating stigma by likening them to the criminally insane. Several legal scholars have also rejected the idea of exempting dependent drug users from culpability, finding it either unworkable, unconstitutional or both.

Labour withdrawing its support for decriminalization is not the only watershed moment of late in the Norwegian drug reform process, however. Following repeated claims by police in public hearings and media that decriminalization would rob them of the necessary legal powers to search and forcibly drug test drug users, Norway's new Attorney General, Jørn Sigurd Maurud, issued a statement on April 9th detailing the lawful extent of the police's powers in petty drug cases.

In his statement, Maurud effectively ruled that the methods that the police had opposed decriminalization vocally in order to keep, and had ostensibly been using for decades, were in fact illegal, unconstitutional and in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Thus, police could no longer make arrests, carry out home raids, perform data dumps from users' cell phones or coerce users into drug tests to investigate petty drug offenses. In cases where no drugs are found on someone's person, this meant that Norwegian police would no longer be able to prove intoxication beyond reasonable doubt in the absence of a confession. In other words, consumption in itself – which had been criminalized and actively pursued by police – was now de facto decriminalized as long as it occurred in private.

The irony of this situation is that Norway's police have been deprived of the very methods that they claimed to depend on in their anti drug effort, without any decriminalization occurring, while the proposed decriminalization model would in fact have resolved the issue perfectly. In the bill, the standard of proof for decriminalized offenses was only a preponderance of evidence, making it possible for police to clear cases and send users to counseling solely on the basis of visible intoxication symptoms – in the absence of a voluntary saliva test. Should the bill be revived and passed in the future, police would find themselves going from a situation in which they could not react in nearly as many cases as before, to one in which they could react in more cases than ever before.

Meanwhile, several current government and opposition parties have now made reviving the decriminalization bill part of their official platform for the national elections this fall, and public opinion in Norway seems to have shifted clearly in favor of decriminalization. With the necessary counseling units already set to be implemented, and reactions becoming ever less harsh, it seems unlikely that Norway will be able to hold back on decriminalization for long. Many predict that the Labour party will finally vote to decriminalize at its next national congress in 2023, as the dissenting fraction grows and the party's alternative reform either flops or fails to materialize altogether. Until then, Norway's drug policy reform movement, which has seen considerable growth and mainstreaming in recent years, will continue its fight to make Norway a drug policy forerunner in the Nordics and Europe.