Under any other circumstances, the lesson of this story would be rather straightforward. Don’t leave the door to your apartment open while you’ve got a heap of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) laying around. Especially while the police have been tailing you for days. But this is Norway, and as it turns out, the days of unbridled paranoia are coming to a silent end at the hands of activist scientists and judges who put facts before fear.
For a computer programmer from Fredrikstad, Norway named Henrik Akselsen that fear was very real when police entered his apartment and found a few tabs of LSD left over from the 100 blotters he had smuggled into the country. Law enforcement would have preferred he serve a prison sentence, but the courts had other ideas.
In the absence of a criminal record, the court decided that Akselsen would be better off serving 45 hours of community service for what amounted to simple possession of LSD. The more significant factor was that this case had made it all the way to Norway’s Supreme Court, meaning that the decision has set a major precedent for future cases of drug possession.
When you consider where this progressive change of mind is coming from it comes as no surprise. Scandinavian countries are often praised by the international community for their forward-thinking policies on everything from healthcare to immigration.
Drugs, however, are a different story in which these Nordic countries have some of Europe’s strictest zero-tolerance policies. Sweden is so notoriously anti-drug that they’ve even refused to offer needle exchange programs for heroin addicts on the belief that it condones drug use. Norway, on the other hand, seems to have reluctantly accepted these programs as they were once considered the ‘drug overdose capital of Europe’ according to the New York Times. Yet as a result of scare tactics and anti-drug campaigns, the country has resorted to extremes which even limit the use of generic drugs like Aspirin.
It is tiny victories like swapping prison for community service in cases of possession are actually giant leaps forward. In the case of LSD, it’s worlds apart from what the rest of the world is doing – especially for such a rare substance.
According to national data on substance use from 2017, cannabis is the most widely used substance while LSD doesn’t even make the list. Norway outlawed LSD in the 70s at the same time the rest of the world was convinced to join in on the drug war. But in recent decades they have begun to loosen restrictions on substances in general.
Simple possession of cannabis for example usually results in a fine and a criminal record rather than jail time. But the Norwegian branch of NORML, a cannabis reform NGO that also operates in US and Canada, insists that current programs like the mandatory urinalysis tests imposed on youth are a massive invasion of privacy.
Still, Norway has made science-based advances that others in Europe and North America have yet to accept. As of 2013, the government has allowed for a level of nuance in scheduling that is not seen in many other countries. For example, in the United States, Cannabis, Heroin, and LSD are all listed under Schedule 1 despite their chemically distinct characteristics.
Much of the credit for evidence-based policy changes go to advocacy groups like EmmaSofia. That organization, which gets its name from the Norwegian word for Ecstasy and the Greek word for wisdom, is the brainchild of a husband and wife team of scientists; Pål Johansen and Teri Krebs. Their work, among others, was cited in Akselsen’s court case and has helped to slowly change the minds of policymakers.
“Though there is still is a great deal of apprehension towards the use of drugs other than alcohol and tobacco,” Secretary-General of EmmaSophia, Jørn Mjelva, told HERB via email, “our experience is that both politicians and the general population have a great deal of respect for scientific evidence.”
Over the years they’ve worked on studies like the 2012 propaganda buster they published in PLOS One which looked at 21,967 people who claimed to be long-term psychedelics consumers. They found that “There were no significant associations between lifetime use of any psychedelics,” and mental health issues. Instead, they found that in some cases experiences with LSD resulted in an improvement of mental health.
“[Politicians’] commitment to evidence-based policy makes is hard for them to ignore the findings of research done in the recent years.” Says Mjelva, “Obviously there are risks…” He continues, “However, the scientific consensus is clear that psychedelics, used either recreationally or therapeutically, are among the safest drugs (both legal and illegal) we know of, and significantly safer than the opioids used both for medical or recreational purposes.”
That work has been backed up by other activists in the scientific community like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) which recently received the FDA’s “Breakthrough Therapy” designation for MDMA as a treatment for PTSD.
“We are encouraged by the decision of Norway’s Supreme Court to review the penalty level of LSD-related crimes and to sentence Henrik Akselsen to community service – instead of incarceration,” said Ismail Ali of MAPS in a statement to HERB, “Prohibitionist drug control schemes and punitive, criminal penalties for drug possession and use cause measurable harm to users and to society. We encourage other governments to, like Norway, consider compassionate, evidence-based policies.”
Though drug offenses on the books still demand strict penalties which can be as high as 21 years for trafficking, today the police and courts are largely given the leeway to deal with drug offenders as they see fit. It’s a recognition that a more reasoned and evidence-based approach is the way to go and with its activist scientists and judges Norway is leading that charge.