Andrew Osborn








Expensive Oslo - city of the cheap fix capital - Heroin costs the same as c igarettes, police turn a ...

The Guardian, 27th July 2002 17:20

By Andrew Osborn in Oslo.

Expensive Oslo - city of the cheap fix capital - Heroin costs the same as cigarettes, police turn a blind eye, and the Norwegian capital tops Europe's overdose deat hs league.

Its standard of living was officially recognised this week as the best money can buy but Norway has a darker, less publicised claim to fame: Oslo has become Europe's drug overdose capital and is awash with heroin.

The city is infamously expensive. A pint of beer will set you back £5, a packet of cigarettes £5.50. Heroin, however, is relatively cheap-one ten th of a gram costs about the same as 20 Marlboro.

The drug's relative affordability - it has halved in price in the past decade - has encouraged t housands of ordinary Norwegians to develop a habit, with fatal consequences. Ev ery fifth autopsy carried out by the city coroner now reaches the same depressi ng conclusion: death by drug overdose.

Oslo has the worst rate of drug-related deaths of 42 European cities, according to a report by the Council of Europe's Pompidou Group, set up in 1971 to study drug abuse and trafficking.

Last year 338 Norwegians died from drug o verdoses, 114 of them in Oslo, compared with 75 in 1990. The Norwegian Institut e for Alcohol and Drug Research estimates that the number of intravenous users has doubled in the past decade to 14,000.

Norway, experts agree, is in the grip of a heroin epidemic.

These statistics contrast sharply with the picture painted by the United Nation s human development report this week which for the second year running conclude d that life expectancy, education and healthcare in Norway were better than any where e lse.

One explanation for the high death rate is the injection culture. "Contrary to many other countries Norwegian drug addicts inject themselves with heroin rathe r than smoke it," says Ketil Bentzen, deputy director general of the ministry o f social affairs.

"Nor do they take it on its own. They mix it with pills such as Rohypnol and al cohol and that's deadly."

"A number of deaths also occur after people are discharged from institutions su ch as prisons," he adds. "After Iceland we have the high est number of residential treatment facilities in the world."

Despite the fact that the possession, use and trafficking of drugs are illegal and punishable by a maximum prison term of 21 years, the drug scene in Oslo is startlingly open.

A hotdog kiosk a stone's throw from Oslo central station is the focal point for addicts and pushers. It stands next to a bus and tram stop and at first glance the crowds look as if they are waiting for public transport.

But the buses come and go and the people, who whisper to one another and draw deeply on roll-up cigarettes, stay. There a re between 100 and 150 addicts hanging around the kiosk at any given time, clos ely observed by police surveillance cameras. An estimated 500 to 600 people vis it the kiosk every day.

The addicts, whose ema ciated faces poke from hooded tops or sweatshirts, look like the tortured Norwegians painted by Edvard Munch.

Their eye sockets are large and lifeless and they reek of desperation.

"It's like something out of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables," says Trym Skarra, a city council social worker on stand by to deal with overdoses.

His colleague Anja Helland adds: "Most of them started when they were young, at between 12 and 15. Beer is so expensive here that it's cheaper to buy drugs. W e have people who overdose almost every day. It's suicide."

According to Knut Reinaas of the League against Intoxicants, addicts are inject ing themselves with bigger doses and more frequently - up to 10 times a day.[QQ ] Christer, a 32-year-old speed dealer who has been using drugs since the age of 12 and whose wrists and arms are punctured with needle scars, is typical of many. He uses heroin, s peed, Rohypnol and hashish, knows the risks but doesn't care.

"My friend died of an overdose two days ago. He had just got out of prison," he mumbles. "Of course I'm worried. I've had 20 overdoses myself but this is my h appiness and it's better to die than lead this fucking life."

A police station sits on the same square as the kiosk - Christia n Frederiks Plass - but its occupants leave the addicts to their own devices fo r the most part. A small park in the square is littered with the paraphernalia of drug addiction; - spoons for heating heroin and silver foil for packing it, - but the real action takes place at Oslo docks.

Behind a corrugated iron building which used to be a terminal for ferries to De nmark lies Oslo's most infamous shooting gallery.

The scene is stark. One man stretches out while another thrusts a needle into h is neck an d dozens of addicts lie on the ground, savouring their hit. A stereo blares out as they inject one another before collapsing. They pay little attention to pas sers-by and the ground is strewn with used syringes.

The government is so concerned, Mr Bentzen says, that it is drafting an emergen cy action plan to present to parliament in October.

Tova Boygard, who helps to hand out some of the 1.8m syringes distributed free every year, says: "We get all kinds of people aged 18 to 80, including people i n su its who you'd never suspect."

"Maybe it's something to do with the Norwegian mentality. We have a reputation that we like to drink and overdo it and maybe it's the same with drugs."

Mr Bentzen is philosophical about the future. "It's not difficult to detox an a ddict," he says. "The real challenge is to find something with which to replace their addiction and the government is unable to distribute the meaning of life ."