Increased mental illness, higher levels of conflict, more people with weapons and dangerous drugs. With the tendencies Arild Knutsen has witnessed in the open drug environment during the pandemic, both he and Guri Melby (V) are worried about the results after another shutdown.
– It is a special situation. For us, there are no “call-and-bring” options. Ordinary people can survive being at home when there is a shutdown. I have to go out to get what I need, says Martin (45).
He is part of the open drug environment that VG meets in Storgata in central Oslo on a shivering cold Friday just before Christmas.
In the partially closed capital, there is little resemblance to a busy pre-Christmas period. But in Storgata, which in recent years has become known for its open Russian scene, there are still more people gathering.
And no matter how hard you try, everything called “infection control” offers practical challenges, says Martin.
– A salesman I know used to have heroin in his mouth. When the pandemic came, he took it in a box for infection control reasons. That meant that he was taken twice, says the 45-year-old.
– In the end, he went back to having the heroin in his mouth, even though there is a risk of infection.
1 of 2Photo: Helge Mikalsen / VG
On a daily basis, they also have to take on and exchange money with each other. He himself is more afraid of infecting others, than of being infected himself.
– When it has been really extreme, I have tried to keep my distance. But those who are intoxicated forget such things.
– More violence and dangerous situations
VG is with the Association for Human Drug Policy (FHN) on its regular round to distribute user equipment. It is in this connection that we meet Martin and several others in the same situation.
FHN distributes everything from needles, cookware, smoke foil, ascorbic acid and antidote. The equipment is to avoid all types of infection between users – and other dangerous situations, such as overdoses.
The leader of the association, Arild Knutsen, is concerned about several of those we meet and what it is like to be in the open drug environment during another shutdown. But the concern is not really mostly about infection control.
– There have never been so many in the open drug environments as there are now. It is a precarious situation, he says to VG and continues:
– We see that there is increased mental illness, increased levels of conflict, more people with weapons and generally higher drug levels. It creates more violence and dangerous situations.
Fear new overdose record
Knutsen says that the pandemic has also changed the illegal market. Due to closed borders, new supply channels have entered the country, which makes unknown and dangerous substances more readily available.
The FHN leader is therefore particularly concerned about the increasing number of young, unknown faces that he sees appearing in Storgata.
– During the pandemic last year, we had one of the highest overdose numbers. It is very worrying that we will not get those figures until next year, and do not know how we are doing.
He also points out that there is generally little incentive for drug users today to comply with quarantine and isolation if they become ill. He believes that most people in the environment who become infected cannot comply with the infection control rules when they have to go out and buy their daily dose.
– The isolation rooms that are reserved for heavy users here in Oslo are full, he points out.
Knutsen believes that more low-threshold substitution offers would have helped to prevent overdoses, reduce the accumulations in the city center and give users the opportunity to adjust to the corona rules.
– The social exclusion becomes more visible
The leader of the Liberal Party, Guri Melby, believes that there is too little talk about how closure and pandemics affect the disadvantaged in the drug environments.
Among other things, she highlights the celebration “alternative Christmas”, which was partially canceled and moved outdoors in many degrees below zero due to infection control.
Melby fears that the current government will make the same mistake as the government she herself was in. In the first round of closure, they closed many of the vital low-threshold offers – either for fear of infection, or because they had to reallocate health personnel.
– Now we know much more. It is important for us to encourage you not to panic, because the price is high to pay, says Melby and points out:
– The pandemic hits hardest on those who are struggling from before, and the social exclusion even more visible. Still, groups like this often go a little under the radar.
The status report from Knudsen on the development in the open drug environment worries her.
– The goal for us should be to reduce those who resort to new ways of obtaining drugs and unknown means. We must go to great lengths to ensure that what we have to offer is maintained.
She points out that it is not forbidden to meet, if you are divided into smaller events or groups.
She also believes that the government should issue a clear call for low-threshold services to be maintained and preferably strengthened, not shut down.