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Norway's Heroin Lows

The model welfare state is a prime market for the rising Afghan opium trade. Mounting overdoses and ruined lives are the result.

November 29, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

OSLO — She said she only smoked heroin, but there were needle bruises on her neck. She said she loved her boyfriend, but she stood on a corner and offered herself to others. She said she was a girl, but then remembered she had become a woman. She said she wanted to quit, but she knew she wouldn't.

Across town in a brick chapel, Father Jon Atle Wetaas lighted three votive candles. "These are for peace and reflection," the priest said. "We never know what we'll meet out there." Then he and a nurse loaded a camper with clean needles, medicine and coffee and drove the streets searching for some of the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 heroin addicts that shadow this Norwegian port city.

They came upon the woman on the corner, a shattered 18-year-old desperately looking to fill her empty syringe. Her name was Katrin Nygard Helgeland.

"I try to quit," she said, her face pale in the autumn half-light. "I get depressed, and I run away inside myself."

Clean and tidy Oslo, the capital of a nation with one of the highest standards of living and some of the best social programs in the world, is one of Europe's heroin havens. Three years ago, it recorded more overdoses than any other major European city. Now, after a two-year decline in drug deaths -- in part because of the war in Afghanistan, which interrupted the production and distribution of heroin -- the number of overdoses is rising.

The trafficking routes leading to this city of stiff winds and North Sea oil money have reopened, and Norway is again a prime destination in the international drug network. Opium smuggled out of Afghanistan and turned into heroin is ferried by Albanian and Serbian gangs through Bulgaria and Romania before being distributed across Central and Northern Europe. In one raid this year, Oslo police confiscated nearly 150 pounds of heroin -- double the previous largest seizure, in 2001.

"We think the flow of heroin will increase," Police Chief Anstein Gjengedal said. "It's very well organized."

The United Nations recently announced that despite the presence of U.S. and international troops, opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased 64% this year, growing into a $2.8-billion business.

Alarm over the drug problem in Oslo has led to a police campaign to push hundreds of addicts out of a park at the main train station. The move dispersed them throughout the city and provoked an outcry from neighborhood storeowners. Two factors that contribute to the problem are the low number of addicts seeking treatment in rehabilitation facilities and Norway's failure to widely distribute methadone until the late 1990s.

"There's a war in Oslo at the moment," said Ole Martin Holte, director of the medical camper program for addicts run by the Franciscan Aid agency. "There was less heroin in the streets during the Afghan conflict. Prices went up to 400 to 450 kroner [$66 to $74]. It's down to 200 to 250 [$33 to $41], and today the heroin is purer, which leads to more overdoses."

Kirsten Eeg, a social worker with the Church City Mission program, said, "The addicts are scattered, and they can't take care of one another as they did at the train station. Now, it's one death here, another there. It takes a longer time to find people and get help. Overdoses will go up."

The heroin scourge has been creeping through Oslo for decades. It surfaced in the late 1960s in the park near the palace and spread along the cobbled pedestrian mall until it landed at the plata, the park adjoining the train station. What began as a druggy counterculture movement of "flower power hippies," Eeg said, evolved into a population of medical and psychological outcasts that is testing Norway's sympathy for the downtrodden.

The plata had become a sinister yet fabled hangout for teenagers wanting to experiment with heroin and for prostitutes, who could sometimes be seen lifting their skirts to insert needles near their hips. "It was attracting boys who bought drugs and went home," said Gjengedal, who estimated that Oslo had about 60 street-level dealers. "It was turning them into users and creating other crimes. We had to move against it."

Heroin is smoked throughout much of the Continent. But Norway, with its history of secret heavy drinking to skirt temperance campaigns, is known for intravenous drug users seeking stronger highs. This binge mentality, social workers say, increases the risk of overdose because addicts frequently mix alcohol and depressants with heroin. Over the decades, the problem has spread beyond Oslo, and the government estimates that Norway has about 14,000 addicts.

In 1990, the nation had 75 overdose deaths. Government statistics show that the number of fatalities rose dramatically -- to 270 in 1998 and 338 in 2001. The amount of heroin coming out of Afghanistan fell in 2002 and 2003, and the number of Norwegian deaths dropped to 210, then 172.

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