Norway will trial an experimental scheme to provide drug addicts with free heroin in a bid to combat the country’s overdose epidemic.
The government announced that the Norwegian Directorate for Health and Social Affairs was asked to propose a program that would improve the quality of life for those struggling with substance abuse.
Health Minister Bente Hoie said in a statement posted to Facebook that they hoped the initiative would “provide a solution that will give… a better quality of life to some addicts who are today out of our reach and whom current programmes do not help enough”.
Norway has the highest rate of overdose mortality in Europe with such deaths accounting for 80 per million people in 2015.
Mr Hoie added to The Aftenposten newspaper that they were keen to develop a heroin treatment program. “ We want to help those are difficult to reach, those who are not part of LAR (drug-assisted rehabilitation) and who are difficult to treat,” he said.
The pilot programme will begin in 2020, and will see up to 400 addicts prescribed heroin for medicinal purposes. It is unclear patients will be selected or how much of the drug will be prescribed.
In 2017, Norway became the first Scandinavian county to decriminalise drugs after an historic vote. It came after Norway’s Country Drug report revealed that there had been 266 drug-related deaths in 2014.
At the time Sveinung Stensland, deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee, told Norwegian publication VG that it was important that the focus moved from punishment to treatment.
“It is important to emphasise that we do not legalise cannabis and other drugs, but we decriminalise,” he said.
“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 imprisonment.”
Medical heroin therapy is already adopted or tested in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark and supporters of the scheme believe it will reduce death and crime rates.