Who are the Stoltenbergs?

A major breakthrough in drug policy debate was achieved in Norway this summer. The Prime minister's father, Thorvald Stoltenberg, spoke favourably of drug legalisation and regulation in the mass media, after having been part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. To understand just how big this is, foreigners need to understand Norway's place in the drug policy landscape and who the Stoltenbergs are.

The Stoltenberg family is perhaps the most influential family in Norway's Labour Party, which has been the dominant political party for the past 60 years. Thorvald is a former foreign minister, and father of current Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. He is a well respected gentleman in his late seventies, with an aura of honesty and wholeheartedness matched by few other Norwegian politicians.

What makes this family truly unique in terms of drug policy, is the fact that Thorvald's daughter and Jens's sister, Nini Stoltenberg, is a heroin user. Nini and her boyfriend have said publicly that they are recovering from addiction, but still use heroin occasionally. Nini has criticised Norwegian drug policy for being a failure, and said cannabis should be legalised.

Nini's heroin struggles have generated an especially deep-felt need among the Stoltenbergs to address the problem properly. So when international drug policy debate started changing dramatically in 2009, the Stoltenbergs became an important part of the puzzle.

Then Minister of Health Bjarne Haakon Hanssen created a commission to evaluate the complicated question of heroin assisted treatment in 2009. He chose Thorvald to lead it. What better choice than a man who had felt the problem in his family, and who was also perceived as upright and ethical by most Norwegians? The commission recommended starting heroin assisted treatment, since it is so successful in other European countries. It also recommended a more holistic approach to drug treatment, where people in treatment and their families would be met with respect and not have to deal with the fragmented and repressive bureaucracy that they have to relate to today.

Although the commission did not really deal with cannabis or decriminalisation of drug use, and although their conclusions were quite conservative, their recommendations should be seen as a large step in the right direction. Especially in regards to Scandinavian drug policy. Sweden is one of the most repressive countries in Europe and Denmark one of the most progressive. What happens in Norway, influenced by both countries as well as European trends, is important in regards to the conflict between the so-called Swedish model and the Portuguese model advocated by reformists.

Thorvald took it one step further when joining the Global Commission on Drug Policy – probably realising that the issue is international and thus needs to be addressed at that level. Largely a commission consisting of former Latin American politicians, Thorvald is a welcome addition to the group. In the course of his involvement with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Thorvald must have become more radical. Because in an earlier interview with Morgenbladet, he expressed skepticism towards cannabis legalisation. But when confronted with the idea by Norwegian tabloids recently, he said he hoped to see it regulated.

But where is Jens? In a situation like this, leadership is needed. The Labour Party now has a large faction who wants to see changes in drug policy. Jens has asked the Department of Justice to evaluate his impartiality in the matter, and got approval to take part in shaping drug policy. Thorvald has said he has not discussed drug policy with his son, to avoid ruining his impartiality. Yet, he has not been vocal on the issue at all. Instead, the justice minister, Knut Storberget has been the one taking leadership on the issue. Storberget is part of the anti-alcohol movement and also represents the interests of the police and prisons. He has listened to the criticism, and was originally positive to decriminalising drug use. But recently he dismissed decriminalisation as being “for academics,” and instead wants more drug-free treatment in prisons and increased use of “alternative punishments” of young drug offenders. The so-called “alternative punishments” are, in reality, expensive and intrusive urine test contracts that are not really voluntary. Thus, in a sense, Storberget is adding to the bureaucracy instead of addressing the real criticisms at their root.

The Stoltenberg family presents Norway with a complicated condrum, but has nevertheless advanced drug policy reform debate like never before.