Decriminalisation in Norway: Using ‘vulnerability’ to argue for and against drug law reform

By Dr Tobias Kammersgaard, published: 17/02/2023.

‘Vulnerability’ is a contested term and approaches to addressing vulnerability can vary markedly. To speak about a group as ‘vulnerable’ can simultaneously be used as a driver for increased help and support, as well as to push for restrictions to protect people who are deemed vulnerable from themselves. In Norway, arguments about ‘vulnerable’ groups were used to both oppose and support decriminalisation of drug possession.

Norway has ranked high in drug-related overdose deaths for many years with approximately four times as many incidents per capita than the EU average. Consequently, in 2018 the Norwegian government appointed a Drug Reform Committee to prepare a new model for responding to possession of illicit drugs for personal consumption. The subheading of the report that the committee produced in 2019 was titled “From Punishment to Help” and decriminalisation of drug possession for personal consumption was a central aspect of the committee’s recommendations. In that regard, the committee outlined a model similar to the one implemented in Portugal in 2001; drug offenders would have to attend a counselling service, rather than face arrest and criminal sanctions.

In the beginning of 2021, the Norwegian government presented their reform proposal, which largely adopted the recommendations by the reform committee with some minor adjustments, but the reform failed to get the necessary support in the Norwegian parliament and in June 2021 was ultimately downvoted. Although the drug law reform was never implemented, the debate around decriminalisation can still serve to illustrate aspects of how ‘vulnerability’ is invoked in contemporary drug policy making.

Different vulnerable groups and different policy responses

The proponents of the reform proposed decriminalisation of simple possession, especially because those who were most affected by criminalisation were the most vulnerable i.e., people struggling with dependent substance use of opiates or crack cocaine, and who also often experienced additional vulnerabilities, such as lack of housing or employment. The ambition was that these vulnerable people should be met with support and help for managing or ceasing their drug use through the health system, rather than with punishment through the criminal justice system.

While the focus especially was on the most marginalised people who use drugs, the Drug Reform Committee proposed decriminalisation for everyone. However, this was not an uncontroversial decision. More than 100 hearing statements critical of decriminalisation were submitted following the publication of the Drug Reform Committee’s report. These came from a range of different organisations and stakeholders, encompassing municipalities, regional counties, the police, educational institutions, drug treatment centres and various non-governmental organisations.

Most of the hearing statements that were critical of the reform committee’s proposal, would start out by arguing that they were sympathetic to the aim of providing better support, help and treatment for people with drug dependency and agreed that punishment might not be a suitable measure for regulating the behaviour of this group. However, several of the statements reflected scepticism about decriminalising drug possession for everyone, and especially for young people, as this group was perceived as particularly vulnerable and susceptible to start or keep using illicit drugs, if this did not have any (legal) consequences. Some of the statements included:

Children and youth are in vulnerable phases. We believe that exposing young people to choices they are unable to see the consequences of is wrong.”

(Sola municipality, my translation)

Young people with drug addiction or drug-related problems are a particularly vulnerable group (18-25 years) who have not been considered in the reform. They do often not acknowledge their own drug problem and are not receptive to the help/support system.”

(Kristiansund municipality, my translation)

In our view, the reform considers the addicted drug users, but not young people who are in a vulnerable and experimental phase.”

(Lyngdal municipality, my translation)

The reasoning is that young people are vulnerable and cannot be left to their own devices in managing their drug use. Several others stated that young people seldom ‘acknowledged’ that their drug use was problematic. Therefore, they argued that offering help and support with managing drug use could not simply be based on consent but had to rely on the threat of criminal sanctions, to avoid the young person in question rejecting the offer.

Vulnerability, support and coercion

The Nordic countries have traditionally been depicted as having more humane and mild penal regimes compared to most other countries in the world. However, these countries have simultaneously been characterised as operating within a paternalistic ‘culture of intervention’, with low thresholds for intervening into the private lives of individuals (see also Barker, 2013). Such coercive interventions often stem from a concern for the wellbeing of ‘vulnerable’ individuals that ‘need’ help and direction to make the ‘right’ choices.

The Norwegian debate around decriminalisation illustrates how concerns about the ‘vulnerability’ of different social groups can be at once a driver of loosening coercive measures and sanctions for some groups (adult people with drug dependency), as well as an argument for retaining sanctions for other groups (young people ‘experimenting’ with drugs). This demonstrates how speaking about groups as ‘vulnerable’ can have widely differential effects and can be used to argue for seemingly contradictory policy interventions, depending on how the ‘vulnerability’ label is invoked.

In the context of criminal justice policy, considerations of vulnerability bear the potential to complicate the division between ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ and to drive more supportive responses. However, while interventions targeting groups that are deemed vulnerable can be supportive in intent, they might nevertheless still be experienced as constraining and punitive. In order to ensure interventions are appropriate and best serve the needs of vulnerable groups, it is crucial that their views are voiced. In our future work at the ESRC Vulnerability & Policing Research Centre, we aim to ensure this through involving people with lived experiences of policing, criminal justice, and safeguarding interventions in our research.

This blogpost reports on research that was supported by the Nordic Research Council for Criminology (grant number 20210007). You can read more about the research project here. Read the latest article “From punishment to help? Continuity and change in the Norwegian decriminalization reform proposal”.