In Norway’s war on drugs the drugs won


What to do about drugs is one of the issues I am genuinely agnostic about; I don’t like the idea of drugs and I think in most cases they are quite destructive for individuals and the society in general, but I also don’t think that criminalising certain substances has worked except for making some very bad people very rich and clogging our justice and penal systems without actually solving the problems or much lessening the harm. Having said all that, I don’t think that what Norway is now planning to do is a good solution either:

Norway, which has one of the highest deadly drug overdose rates in Europe, will test prescribing free heroin to the most serious addicts to improve their living conditions, the government said on Friday.

The Norwegian Directorate for Health and Social Affairs has been tasked with proposing an experimental project to identify patients likely to benefit from the programme, to examine the implementation method, and to calculate the costs.

Already adopted or tested in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark, medical heroin therapy is controversial, but supporters argue that in addition to improving the quality of life of addicts and lowering overdose mortality, it reduces crime and the costs associated with it.

Of course it reduces crime because giving people for free the stuff they want but normally can’t have will eliminate the necessity some people feel to break the law in order to get their hands on it. But what it does is transfer the monetary and the emotional costs from people being robbed or burgled and stores getting shoplifted at to the collective of taxpayers who have to fund the addicts’ habits. Now, that might be a better policy from an utilitarian point of view – not least because taxpayers don’t experience the same intense distress when their wallets are getting raped by the state as do victims of crime who have been directly targeted to get the money for the next hit, and so it’s a “lesser evil” – but it creates yet another group of people who are now dependant on the government. One could argue that this is no different than the state providing some form of “free” (i.e. taxpayer-funded) medical care for the population, except that this time the government buys you hard drugs, but this merely leads to another debate about the differences and similarities between an addiction and an illness (and if the former, unlike the latter, is a choice, are diseases that are consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle not a matter of choice either?).

To my mind, governments should try to limit as opposed to facilitate destructive behaviour such as heavy heroin use. As the Norwegian Directorate for Health and  Social Affairs calculates the costs of the proposed free smack program, I wonder if it would not be more economical (and useful) to direct all addicts (or at least those who come into contact with the justice system) into compulsory rehab programs coupled with other support initiatives to reduce the chance of backsliding.