Oslo, the capital of drug deaths

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Oslo, the capital of health and prosperity - and drug deaths

by Warren Hoge, The New York Times
Friday, August 9, 2002

OSLO - Europe's drug overdose capital.

A report from the Council of Europe's narcotics-monitoring Pompidou Group says Oslo is first among 42 European cities in seizures and deaths caused by drugs. Oslo had 115 such deaths last year, down from a peak of 134 in 1998, but still the highest of the group. In Norway as a whole, the toll is rising, with 338 deaths in 2001, up from 75 in 1990.
The figures are starkly at odds with the travel brochure image of Norway as a land of serene mountains and fjords, and with customary survey results like a human development report by the United Nations last month that found it to be first in the world in income, health care, life expectancy and education. The overdose findings have caused a debate here that has pitted the region's traditional notions of clean-living morality against its instincts for protecting social outcasts.
While politicians dither, addicts by the hundreds openly buy drugs in Oslo's central plaza and walk the two blocks back to the fjordside shooting gallery, pull out their tourniquets and needles and get high in public.
The main reason the overdose and death rates are so high here is that Norwegian addicts inject heroin rather than smoke it, as is common elsewhere in Europe. Norway's 14,000 heroin users then increase the odds by mixing the drug with alcohol and the nervous system depressant Rohypnol. Asked to explain why these dangerous practices caught on here, Norwegians refer to their particular history of hard drinking and of zealous temperance movements, which brought a ban on alcohol in the 1920s and have restricted liquor sales to this day.
During prohibition, Norwegians acquired the habit of drinking the strongest liquor possible - and lots of it - the moment they got hold of it. Roar Staale Alstadius, a health worker with the city's overdose team, said the parallel between the bigger rush from injected heroin and binge drinking could explain why Norway's heroin users take drugs intravenously.
Norway compounded the problem by being slow to turn to the heroin substitute methadone for treatment. "Norwegians believe in self-sufficiency and independence," Alstadius said. "The idea was always you had to fight to get yourself off drugs; you had to work for it, not just trade one dependency for another."
Some methadone was made available in 1997, but waiting periods have stretched past two years. Parliament is expected to approve a measure in October to make methadone available to more than 2,000 people by the end of this year.
Views about how to counteract addiction vary here, as in most places.
The official goal remains making Norway drug free, but the government also tries to reduce the harm to users by providing them with housing, benefits and clean conditions for taking drugs.
Police cameras monitor the drug trafficking in a tree-lined area of the Central Station park known as plata (the slab). But though possessing, using and peddling heroin are all illegal and subject to harsh punishment, officers are sent in only when scuffles break out or obviously underage people appear.
Every night a "needle bus" parks at a central intersection to provide users with antiseptic syringes, and this month a pilot project "injecting room" opens in a Norwegian church mission blocks from the harbor.
"We are a very rich country," said Kjell Erik Oie, director of health and welfare for the mission. "We have lots of money and cars, and we change houses and flats the way some people change shirts. We can't ignore the poor conditions under which these people live."

source: International Herald Tribune

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