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Norway Set to Call for Decriminalization

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The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported on January 25 that a government-appointed commission will call for the decriminalization of drug use and possession when it formally presents its findings to Norwegian Justice Minister Odd Einar Dorum in March. Under current law, which makes no distinctions among controlled substances, drug use or possession is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years in prison. Drug trafficking offenders face from two to 21 years in prison, depending on the drug and the quantity. The commission will not recommend lessening penalties for trafficking, according to Aftenposten.

While Norway has a reputation for a hard-line, repressive drug policy -- its stated goal is "a society free from drug abuse" -- and is the home of drug war conservatives such as the League Against Intoxicants ( http://www.fmr.no/eng), in actual practice those caught using or possessing small quantities of drugs, especially cannabis, usually face only small fines. In some ways, however, Norway countenances drug control measures that would seem obtrusive even to American drug war veterans. The current blood alcohol limit for driving under the influence is a minuscule 0.02 percent; in the US, efforts to bring the limit down to 0.08 percent cause great anguish. And Norwegian law also allows for compulsory drug treatment under some circumstances, including when a woman is pregnant. Such women can be institutionalized without their consent for the duration of the pregnancy if a court determines that their drug or alcohol use would probably harm the health of the child.

Drug use figures for Norway are hard to come by, but according to the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA), Norway ranks squarely in the middle in terms of problematic drug users. Interestingly, it shares the middle ground with countries such as Spain, where drug use is decriminalized, and Ireland, where it is repressed. The US State Department, in its latest annual report on global drug trends, noted that cannabis, ecstasy, and amphetamines were frequently cited in police arrest reports, while Aftenposten reported in November that "trendy Oslo is awash in cocaine."

As the League Against Intoxicants sadly reports, drug legalization talk has in recent years reared its ugly head in the Norse homeland. "Political support [for legalization] comes from parts of the youth movements of the Progress Party (extreme conservative) and the Young Liberals. Legalizing also has some support in certain university intellectual circles, among a very few within the health sector and some persons in practical health and treatment work," according to the league, which decries the ascendancy of this tendency. "Some support is possibly also given by certain groups of free intellectuals," the league noted.

The commission's members -- which include the head of Norway's white-collar crime unit, a Supreme Court justice, a state attorney, a well-known defense attorney, and a state prosecutor -- may or may not personally favor legalization. But the body that has been working to "modernize" Norwegian drug laws since 1995 has called for significant changes that will push Norway further down the path of drug law liberalization, including decriminalization of use and possession.

While Aftenposten reported that the reasoning behind the recommendation remained unknown, it speculated that the commission had followed the thinking of drug policy critic Johs Andenes, a law professor who has pointed out inconsistencies and contradictions in current Norwegian drug law.

While the commission recommendations on drugs are certain to set off political fireworks, it also includes other controversial recommendations. The panel wants to end censorship of porn movies, Aftenposten reported, and raise that drinking and driving limit up to a whopping 0.05 percent.

For a complete overview of Norwegian drug laws, visit the European Legal Database on Drugs at: http://eldd.emcdda.org/databases/.