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Norway’s Heroin Lows

Times Staff Writer

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.”

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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.

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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.

The decline also was attributed to less potent heroin and street-level medical and shelter services, such as those run by Franciscan Aid and the Church City Mission. In another attempt to limit overdoses, Oslo is expected to open a “public injection room” next year, where addicts can shoot up under the supervision of nurses.

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Even though the number of heroin deaths is increasing, it’s too early to determine if that’s part of a trend. In 2003, Oslo had 53 overdoses. By October of this year, there were 64. Authorities attributed 11 deaths during an 18-day period in May to a powerful batch of heroin -- another indication that purer Afghan drugs are reaching the market.

The problem tarnishes Norway’s image as a country of splendid fjords and forests. The United Nations has for the last four years cited Norway as having the highest quality of life in the world. It is an egalitarian society sustained by high taxes and North Sea oil tracts. The literacy rate is 99%, and social and medical programs are all-encompassing.

But like the art of its native son Edvard Munch, who distilled existential angst in “The Scream” and other paintings, this nation has slivers of darkness. Some Norwegians suggest that the heroin problem grew because oil wealth turned cities harsh and capitalistic. Others believe that the country has long had a challenge reconciling its strict laws with its more tolerant tendencies.

Gaunt, willowy addicts gathered on a recent day near the 7-Eleven on Karl Johans Gate in east downtown. Dealers threaded the sidewalks. Girls whispered propositions. Needles were counted, little packets of powder crinkled. A big man with a samurai haircut and wild eyes, known on these streets as a mercurial prince of the dispossessed, walked through the crowd yelling and looking for a score.

The police kept watch, and so did private security guards recently hired by stores not far from the train station and the construction site for Oslo’s new opera house.

“Norway has become a police state,” remarked Said Rouiha, a Moroccan native whose head twitched as he waited for a dealer amid passing tourists and office workers. “Since they closed the plata, it is more dangerous for us. Around here you can get whatever you want. Hashish. Heroin. Marijuana. Methadone. You get it all. I’ve been smoking 14 years. Many, many of my friends died for overdoses and poisoned heroin. I gave some of them CPR.”

He paused and scratched heroin residue from his lips. When asked how he ended up here, he gave a slight laugh and looked away. “I worked construction, you know. I married a nice Norwegian woman, and she converted to Islam. We had a son. He’s 11. Then I got into this, and I can’t stop.”

Across the street, Tor Nilsen worked behind the counter in one of Norway’s oldest paint stores. “We used to have 110 customers a day,” he said, glancing out the window toward the sidewalk. “Now we’re down to 15 or 20. We used to have five employees. Now it’s just me. The customers aren’t coming down here anymore. They’re scared.

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“Look at this street. Sometimes I think they’re shooting a drug movie with the hundreds of addicts out there.”

The paint store opened in the 1850s. It will close for good in December. The pizza shop on the opposite corner shut down weeks ago. The Oslo merchants association estimates that business has dropped 25% for shop owners in the areas around the train station. “It’s not nice to see the town like this,” Nilsen said.

The Franciscan Aid camper crisscrossed the drizzly streets. Marte Jorstad, an emergency room nurse, was at the wheel, and Wetaas sat in the back near the medical supplies and coffee. Each month, the camper’s staff hands out 12,000 to 15,000 clean needles to the addicts along its route, which includes the ferry docks and the Old Town financial district.

During their time working together, Jorstad has disinfected arms left raw and scabbed from needle tracks, and Wetaas, a broad man with a pink face, has tried to comfort the wobbly addicts who appear at the camper door. The other day, they stopped along the outside walls of Trinity Church, which has become a shooting gallery for intravenous drug users since the plata closed.

The wind blew cold. The addicts were gone, leaving behind syringes, blood spots, broken needles and drips of candle wax. Jorstad and Wetaas put on rubber gloves, walked over the slick flagstones and collected the debris. “In the summer I was here,” Jorstad said, “and there was a girl about 25. She was a prostitute, and she had been robbed while she slept. I went over near her. She was shooting up and crying.

“And I looked across the street, and I saw the Norwegian flag and the prime minister’s office.” She pointed. “That’s it right there. And I thought, ‘Wow.’ ”

The camper left the church and stopped at Grev Wedel Plass. A man overdosed here not long ago, Jorstad said as she walked by empty benches and bare trees. On the corner, wearing a white ski jacket, tight jeans and a swollen lip, Katrin Nygard Helgeland waited for men in cars to offer her money for sex. Her welfare check had run out, and she needed a fix.

She mentioned that the heroin on the street was stronger these days and that prices had come down. Another car drove by slowly, followed by another. Men in suits walked past. Helgeland’s father was an addict, and she said her mother had beat her hard. By the time she turned 18, she had been in more than a dozen foster and state homes.

“I used to work this corner,” she said. “I have a boyfriend now, and I love him very much. I don’t have enough money. I don’t want to do this, but I can’t stop.”


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