My incarceration could have been fatal – André’s story

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My name is André Nilsen. I am the chair of the board of Normal Norge. We are an NGO fighting stigma against cannabis users and promoting cannabis reform.

One of the reasons why I’m engaged in the fight for drug policy reform in Norway is that I was once addicted to illegal substances, such as benzodiazepines that I acquired from the illicit drug market. 

In the spring of 2015, I was going to therapy, which I sought voluntarily. At that time, I was 27 years old. On my way to see my therapist and later, my doctor, I went across the downtown area of my hometown, Bergen. I went by a so-called ‘open drug zone’. That year, the City Council wanted to get rid of people who used illegal drugs and who gathered in that area. This part of the city was heavily policed at the time.  

The police enforced hefty fines (10,000 NOK), made arrests, and denied suspected drug users of transiting through Bergen’s downtown area. As I walked through this zone, I was stopped by police under the suspicion that I was selling drugs. I did not sell drugs. 

After searching my pockets, the police found a tiny amount (two joints) of cannabis. I was then put in handcuffs on the street, put in a police car, taken to the police station, made to undress down to my underwear and put in an isolation cell. During this time, they raised criminal charges against me for drug possession, and completed paperwork to impose a fine of 10,000 NOK on me.

While being held in that cell, I missed my therapy session and my doctor’s appointment. I was also denied access to the area of the city’s downtown where the therapist’s office was located.

This experience was devastating to me. I felt stigmatised, dehumanised, and discriminated against by the police and by the government. Being labelled a ‘criminal’ in what was a very vulnerable time for me in my life was very hard. I experienced increased anxiety and depression, which led me, once more, to increase my drug use, and to do so more dangerously. Using illegal substances was a form of self-medication.

In retrospect, I realise that this day could have led to a fatal outcome. My life and behaviour in relation to drug use changed dramatically. 

I’ve talked openly about my experience in the media many times in recent years. I know very well that my story is just one out of many more out there. Some people have experienced far worse than me. But because of the fear of stigma, most people who use drugs and who have struggled don’t want to talk openly about it.

This is why I choose not to be silent, but to speak up. To show the rest of society how people who use drugs made illicit are treated. This way of responding to people who use drugs is harmful and needs to stop.