HELSINGIN SANOMAT international

Foreign - Monday 12.8.2002

Oslo - the new heroin capital of Europe

 First official shooting gallery to open later this year

The Norwegian capital Oslo has a higher rate of deaths related to illegal drugs than any other European city. According to Norwegian police figures, 115 people died of a drug overdose in Oslo last year. The total of drug-related deaths for all of Norway was 338 last year.
   
With one drug-related death every 26 hours, drugs have become a greater killer in Norway than traffic accidents.

The Oslo heroin scene
is most conspicuous in the so-called Plata area on the side of the central railway station that is nearest to the sea.
   
Ambulances have visited the area every single day this year to rescue overdose victims.
   
In the area hundreds of heroin users at a time sit on the pavement, propping themselves up against the walls of the buildings. Paramedics describe the scene as nightmarish.
   
Norwegian politicians have tried to bring the drug problem under control with the help of information campaigns, limited methadone treatment programmes, and tough punishments.
   
In spite of it all, the number of drug addicts is growing constantly, and the most visible action has been the attempt to get drug users off the streets.

The park in front of
the Royal Palace was a popular hangout for drug users already in the 1960s and '70s. Oslo city officials pushed them further down the city's main street - Karl Johan.
   
The drug crowd regrouped around the Oslo Cathedral, causing considerable disturbances with their begging and petty crime. Pushed away from there, the next drug scene hangout was the front of the main railway station, which was not to the liking of the tourist industry, which likes to promote the country as one of healthy rosy-cheeked people in beautiful mountain landscapes.
   
Most recently the heroin scene has emerged in the area between the Oslo Stock Exchange and the site of the new opera. Both politicians and volunteer groups have understood that simply evicting the junkies does nothing to solve the problem.

In January, Norway's Parliament
decided to authorise the establishment of Oslo's first official "shooting gallery" where heroin users would be allowed to inject under supervised conditions.
   
The Ministry of Social Affairs is still studying the operating principles and rules of the facility, which is expected to open sometime in the autumn.
   
Oslo's dark reputation as the city with Europe's worst drug scene might be improving somewhat: in the first half of this year there were 31 drug deaths, down from 63 in the same period last year.
   
However, the improvement is not attributed to more successful policy, but rather to the temporary reduction in the opium production of Afghanistan. With the resumption of more poppy cultivation, Norwegian police believe that more heroin will become available in Oslo.
   
During the past couple of weeks Norwegian customs have seized nearly 30 kilos of heroin. Oslo police estimate that about a tonne of heroin is consumed in Norway each year. The total number of heroin users is estimated at 14,000, most of whom use the drug intravenously.

Police attribute the increase
in the number of hard-core addicts in Norway to a change in attitudes. Norwegian youth have an increasingly casual attitude toward illegal drugs, and are experimenting with them at a younger age.
   
Last year Norway's courts dealt with more than 800 drug cases involving defendants aged 15 to 17. This is up from just over 100 cases a year in the mid-1990s. According to a study conducted among schoolchildren, 28% of young people aged 15 to 20 had tried cannabis, and just under 10% had used harder drugs.
   
Drugs are sold fairly openly in the centre of Oslo. For instance, one hashish dealer estimates that he sells about 1,200 euros worth of cannabis products a day.


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