OSLO (Reuters) - Norway should loosen its strict laws against recreational drug use, switching focus to treatment rather than jail or fines for those in possession of small quantities, the minority centre-right government proposed on Friday.
The Nordic nation has one of Europe's highest drug-induced mortality rates, EU data shows, a fact the government hopes to change, but the legislation is politically controversial and it remains unclear whether it will be passed by parliament.
"Decades of criminal punishment has not worked," Liberal Party leader and Education Minister Guri Melby told a news conference. "We will no longer stand by and watch people being stigmatised and called criminals when they are in fact ill."
Drugs, including heroin, cocaine and cannabis, would remain illegal and subject to confiscation by police, under the government's proposal. But possession of small quantities would no longer be punished.
Instead, counselling will become mandatory, and a refusal to seek help could result in a fine.
Rich from oil and with a generous welfare state, Norway is frequently named among the world's best places to live, topping last year's United Nations Human Development Index, among other things.
The country's record on drugs has been mixed, however, with a strict policy seen by some as part of the problem rather than the solution.
"I believe young people can be motivated to change behaviour without the threat of force or criminal punishment," Health Minister Bent Hoeie of the Conservative Party said.
"This will make it easier to seek help when they need it, as they won't have to fear jail or fines," he said.
Norway's Centre Party, which is rising rapidly in the polls ahead of elections for parliament due in September, has sharply criticised the government's plans, arguing it could lead to more drug use, not less.
(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, editing by Larry King)