Why do we need a conference for Nordic drug policy reform?

By Henry Vistbacka

Drug problems are not just about drugs. This is something that we as a society need to update our narratives on. Beneath the obvious surface of a drug problem you will often find a hurt, quite possibly traumatized person. 

Many of these people grew up in an unsafe environment, never learning healthy ways of dealing with the challenges of life. The victimhood of abused children is obvious to us. But as those children approach adulthood and start dealing with their pain through methods we find unhealthy or otherwise problematic, it becomes increasingly easy for us to see them as moral failures – to think of their ill-informed choices as plain weakness of character, separate from the circumstances that shaped the path of their lives.

Beneath the substance-related problems, many of these people suffer from anxiety, depression, a deep sense of helplessness and a profound lack of meaning. These problems are of course connected to the wider problems in our society related to broken connections, a lack of truly meaningful work and a general sense of a purposeful life.

Because we’ve failed to see drug problems in their actual context, we’ve made it our policy to try to prevent the use of drugs by criminalizing it. This, of course, hasn’t worked. The use and availability of drugs keeps growing, and it’s become evident that criminalization is actually exacerbating many drug related problems. It’s not really preventing people from using drugs.

A healthy direction

Evidenced by the decriminalization of drug use currently under preparation by the Norwegian government, enough people in Norway seem to have grasped the harmfulness of approaching drug problems primarily as a criminal issue. 

As we’ve learned from the often talked about example of Portugal, letting go of criminal sanctions and making treatment and care a top priority can make it easier for professionals to build trusting relationships with people who use drugs and lower the threshold of getting help or just discussing their drug use. Decriminalization can also help dissolve the stigma related to the use of (some) drugs. It can make it easier for society to implement new methods of harm reduction, be it drug checking or needle exchange services, or supervised consumption rooms. Since the decriminalization in 2001, Portugal has seen an impressive decrease in HIV, problematic drug use and drug related deaths. The rest of the world should take heed.

Of course, a more sustainable drug policy is not just for the people with serious drug problems. As with campaigns for safer use of alcohol or safer sex, we also need to keep in mind the average people without major problems. These people can also benefit from information related to risk awareness and healthier practices, and also from the opportunity to talk about their choices with a professional. The more people think that drug related services are only for the people who are the worst off, the less likely they are to seek professional advice.

Facing the challenges ahead

Drug policy reform, of course, encompasses much more than just decriminalization of use and harm reduction measures. As the evidence base regarding the harmful effects of current punishment-driven drug policies keeps growing and the public discussion surrounding them keeps gaining momentum, the magnitude of the problems we are facing becomes ever more clear. One of those problems is that like its alcohol counterpart a century ago, drug prohibition has the nasty effect of liberating drug markets to the hands of organized crime.

Prohibition is not the control of drugs. Prohibition is the lack of control.

We talk about preventing drugs, but by enforcing prohibition, we’re actually just pushing drugs underground. There, they become a major source of income for criminal organizations, which also ends up corrupting our law enforcement. You can find a good example of this in Finland, where the former head of Helsinki's anti-drugs police, Jari Aarnio, was recently found guilty of drug smuggling related crimes, amongst others.

As we can learn from the problems related to cannabis legalization in the US, the alternatives to prohibition are of course not silver bullets that will solve all our problems. One of the difficult questions is how to prevent profit maximization oriented market forces from pushing drugs to people in a post-prohibition world, using the same manipulative, need-creating strategies that modern marketing generally does. And then there’s the questions related to the medicalization of some currently illegal drugs such as psilocybin and MDMA that, according to increasing evidence, can be useful tools aiding psychotherapy treatment of different mental health and substance use related problems. The ongoing US opioid epidemic makes it clear that the issues before us are not easy ones.

The point, of course, is not that the drug policy reform movement has all the answers. The point is that we need to have an honest, evidence-based discussion on the future of drug policy. It’s encouraging that so many Norwegian politicians have already started to recognize the problem. Other countries now need to follow suit. Together, we need to take a serious look at the existing evidence regarding the current situation and the harm caused by it, and at the alternatives and the challenges related to them. We also need to place drug policy and drug problems in context, to cease talking about them as if they were only problems of individuals, something separate from the rest of us and the rest of society, caused just by the effects of the drugs themselves and the bad choices that individuals make.

Through an honest evaluation of the situation, we start perceiving how the surge in mental health problems, increasing rates of unemployment, the rise of populism and political polarization and the deepening of environmental destruction are all somehow interrelated, a part of the same human crisis.

The conference in Oslo this week is an attempt to further our understanding of a part of this crisis, and to advance the implementation of practical, humane solutions that support human well-being. The Nordic countries share a lot of common cultural ground, and as such can cooperate in leading the way for the rest of the civilized world to follow – towards a more responsible, safer and saner drug policy. 

Henry Vistbacka is a board member of the Finnish Association for Humane Drug Policy, a podcast host, a writer and a musician looking to serve the development of a truly sustainable and inspired human society.