In Scenic Norway, Fearful Death Scene of Addicts

In Scenic Norway, Fearful Death Scene of Addicts
Posted by CN Staff on August 07, 2002 at 23:02:42 PT
By Warren Hoge
Source: New York Times 
It is a sunny morning, and the Oslo Fjord dances with reflections. Festive pennants flutter from a departing North Sea ferry, bicyclists pedal past the colonnade of the stock exchange building and sleek trams glide by, filled with downtown workers.Oslo, capital of oil-rich Norway, is springing to daily life, but there is little movement from shabby clutches of people who have also become part of this harborside landscape. 
They slump in a row by a derelict corrugated tin warehouse and lie curled up on the surrounding docks. Their bodies are emaciated, and their faces are as spent and vacant as any that Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist of angst, ever painted. Many are asleep, others nod their heads listlessly.One young man in black shirt and trousers does not stir. He is the latest entry in a tabulation this prosperous city takes no satisfaction in topping: 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 on the Continent. 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."I've overdosed, and all these people have too, many times," said Christian, 32, a lank-haired blond in white tennis shorts and polo shirt who said he had been addicted for 19 years. He held a cotton swab to his ankle where he had just injected himself with his morning hit  the first, he said, of what could be seven shots to get through the day."I come here because these people are my friends, and if I pass out, one of them will call for help," he said. "What none of us will do is shoot up alone."As he spoke, a team of ambulance paramedics succeeded in reviving the man in black. "That guy called them," Christian said, pointing at a man stretched out on the pavement clutching a cellphone.The main reason the overdose and death rates are so high here is that Norwegian addicts inject heroin rather than smoking it, as is common elsewhere in Europe. Norway's 14,000 heroin users then up the odds even higher 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 1920's and have restricted liquor sales to this day.A habit emerged during prohibition of drinking the strongest liquor possible  and lots of it  the moment one 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's first generation of addicts, in a market where the drug was rare and expensive, also chose the method that produced the biggest hit from the smallest amount. Norway compounded the problem by being slow to turn to the heroin substitute methadone for treatment. "Norwegians believe in self-sufficiency and independence," Mr. 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. Arne Huuse, the director of the National Criminal Investigation Service, said in an interview that he would like to put addicts on a northern island until they are clean. The other end of the spectrum is a group of outspoken professors at the University of Oslo who want drugs furnished free to addicts and their use decriminalized.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 under-age people appear.Every night a "needle bus" parks at a downtown 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." The city ambulance service says keeping the drug users to one area helps protect them. "When the police used to chase them from one place to another, we couldn't find them as easily, and when we did, it was in places like schoolyards and playground sandboxes," said Arne Henriksen, director of emergency medical services.Morten Mjelve, assistant director general of the city Department of Social Affairs, said, though, that his office opposed leaving the users in one known place because it gave young people an easy way to get drugs. "They all know where plata is; they go there on weekends, and while they don't get heroin, they get what they call `party packs'  collections of things like Ecstasy, cannabis, amphetamines, GHB and Rohypnol," the last two associated in the United States with date rape  "and they become potential recruits for harder drug taking."Knut T. Reinaas, leader of the League Against Intoxicants and adviser to the city government, said he knew addicts who had experienced 20 overdose seizures but were still shooting up. "Remember," he said, "the crossover world between life and death is the very place they want to reach." Source: New York Times (NY)Author: Warren HogePublished: August 8, 2002Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company Contact: letters Website: CannabisNews Narcotic Archives
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