Norway to test program giving free heroin to addicts in effort to improve their quality of life

Norway to test program giving free heroin to addicts in effort to improve their quality of life
Norway announced plans to roll out a controversial new program for treating the country's most severe heroin addicts. The program is part of a larger effort to focus on treatment rather than punishment for drug addicts. (LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

Norway’s government has announced plans to hand out free heroin to the nation’s most severe addicts in an effort to save lives.

How’s that going to work?

Participants will be provided with diamorphine — the medical form of injectable heroin — and will be required to adhere to a strict monitoring schedule in order to receive the free drugs, according to anti-drug campaigner Mina Gerhardsen.

The trial program will be offered to as many as 400 addicts, and is set to begin in 2020.

Health Minister Bente Hoie explained on Facebook, “We hope that this will provide a solution that will give…a better quality of life to some addicts who are today out of our reach and whom current programs do not help enough.”

Norway has one of the highest levels of drug overdose rates in Europe, at 81 per million residents. The Scandinavian country already has government-monitored safe rooms where users are allowed to inject their own drugs.

Methadone is the traditional medication prescribed to heroin users, with the aim of weaning addicts off the street drug. But for addicts who do not respond well to methadone, diamorphine can be used as an alternative — at the cost of around $22,000 per year for each user.

What about heroin therapy in other countries?

Similar experiments in medical heroin therapy have already been tested in several countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom.

Denmark has administered diamorphine for severe heroin addicts for nearly a decade.

Dr. Anne Mette Doms of the Danish Board of Health explained the reasoning behind the country’s program to The Guardian in 2009, saying “The aim is to improve [addicts’] state of health, help them avoid committing crimes and stabilize their lives. Quitting altogether is not a realistic option for most of these patients. For them, this will be a chronic treatment, as if you were treating a chronic disease.”

According to the Danish Board of Health, having heroin clinics available in the country has increased the number of addicts finding homes by 30 percent, and reduced the time police spend investigating drug offenses by one third.

Anything else?

Norway’s heroin treatment program is part of a larger effort to focus on treatment rather than punishment for drug addicts. The country decriminalized drugs in December 2017.

“It is important to emphasize that we do not legalize cannabis and other drugs, but we decriminalize,” explained Sveinung Stensland, deputy chairman of the parliament’s health committee. “The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: Those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and punishment.”