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Towards a paradigm shift in Norwegian drug policy

The winds of change
Regissør: Kieran Kolle
(Norge)

RUSREFORMEN: Kanskje er det motstanderne av regjeringens rusreform som aller helst bør se dokumentaren Vinden snur, som følger tre aktivister fra Foreningen for human narkotikapolitikk.

The winds of change is an appropriate title for Kieran Kolle's documentary on Norwegian drug policy, as major changes are about to take place in this area.

The film is about Arild Knutsen, Michelle Alexandra Muren and Kim-Jørgen Arnetvedt, all affiliated The Association for Human Drug Policy. Knutsen has led the association since he founded it in 2006, and through this position has been a key participant in the public debate on the country's obvious challenges in the area of ​​intoxicants. Norway has long pursued a strict and conservative drug policy, which in the opponents' view has not been very successful. "In recent years, Norway has had among the highest registered incidences of drug-induced deaths per capita in Europe," it is stated on the Norwegian Directorate of Health's website, and these statistics also refer to the film in an introductory text poster.

Early in the documentary, Knutsen tells about drug addicts who do not call an ambulance when they witness others overdose, as this will mean the police will also come. And there are probably many who are reluctant to seek help for a number of drug-related problems, for the reason that drug use is criminalised and stigmatised.

Proposal for decriminalization

This year, however, the wind may turn in earnest when the Storting is to consider the government's proposal for drug reform. In December 2019, a drug reform committee appointed by the government presented the report «From punishment to help», where it is proposed that drug users should be offered help and treatment rather than being criminalized and punished. It involves a decriminalization of purchases, use and possession for one's own use – which, it should be noted, is not the same as legalization, but a transfer from the justice sector to the health care system.

The documentary shows both their personal challenges with drugs and the work they do for a more humane policy in the area.

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Nevertheless, it is perhaps not surprising that the committee's proposal has provoked reactions. In a feature on Dagsrevyen on 11 January, it was presented that one can be taken with more than 300 intoxication doses of various substances to a total street value of 20 kroner without being punished, if this is successful. In the feature, Sylvi Listhaug and Åshild Bruun-Gundersen from the Progress Party were presented with doses of all the drugs, presented on a table. The two politicians reacted with predictable dismay to the hypothetical amount of different substances – which no one in reality would have been in possession for their own use.

However, the changes have been in the air for a while, no matter how shocked the Progress Party's representatives may be when NRK gives them the opportunity to score such cheap points. The drug reform was initiated by a parliamentary majority consisting of the Labor Party, the Conservative Party, the Socialist People's Party and the Liberal Party in 2017, and decriminalisation has previously been investigated and proposed by the Criminal Law Commission in 2002 and the Stoltenberg Committee in 2011.

Close observations

The winds of change was first shown at the Bergen International Film Festival in October, where it won the Youth Documentary Film Prize. The documentary uses archive clips from the Norwegian media to illustrate the recent decades' public debate on drugs, but filmmaker Kolle has not included interviews with other professionals, nor politicians, or those in power in favor of an observational portrayal of the main characters. He has come close to the three activists in recordings that extend over several years, and the documentary shows both their personal challenges with drugs and the work they do for Norway to have a more humane policy. By following them, we witness several important moments in the work leading up to the reform we are now facing, and which the association they represent has fought for.

The use of heroin and other strong drugs is often a form of self-medication of trauma or
other bad experiences.

The government has not followed all the recommendations from the drug reform committee in the proposal they recently presented, among other things, the non-criminal amounts of drugs have been downgraded. Hopefully, however, there will be a parliamentary majority for a far more humane drug policy, which will make Norway one of the progressive pioneers in the area. In that case, this will be a significant and dramatic change – and for some it may seem more than radical.

Self-medication

The three people the film follows are all, as mentioned, connected to the same association, which welcomes the reform. At the same time, they are people with their own experiences with substance abuse problems. By sharing so much of themselves, the film emphasises a very important point: The use of heroin and other hard drugs is often a form of self-medication for trauma or other painful experiences. As it is said in the film, no one wants to be addicted to drugs. Criminalisation in no way contributes to helping those who are.

Due to the absence of critical voices, some will probably think that The winds of change speaks to the congregation, but perhaps it is the opponents of the reform who should preferably watch this film.

Decriminalisation will hardly lead to increased recruitment of drug addicts, but will make it easier to seek and offer necessary help. As Minister of Health Bent Høie has, for example, changed his position, it is high time that the wind turned in this field.

The winds of change appears in the Norwegian competition program on Human International Documentary Film Festival, which is arranged digitally in the period 1. – 7. March.
The film is also available on VGTV (requires subscription to VG +).

Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.
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