Drug policy in Brazil: A long-overdue discussion

This is a guest post by Ilona SzabóExecutive Director of the Igarapé Institute and Executive Coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Latin America is at the epicenter of the global drug policy debate. In just a few years, a decades-old taboo that prevented new thinking on ways to manage the production, trade and consumption of narcotics has been shattered. As a result, a wide array of policy and programming alternatives to the drug control regime – ranging from the decriminalization of drug use to the legal regulation of drugs markets – have been tabled, in some cases for the first time.

Almost every president in the region acknowledges that the costs of the war on drugs have been devastating. With just 9 percent of the world's population, Latin America exhibits more than 30 percent of its annual homicides. It is hardly surprising, then, that governments are starting to rethink their approaches to controlling drugs. This is especially so since the "war" on drugs has resulted in more avoidable deaths and higher social costs than their consumption. The costs of waging the war has also drained public coffers and exposed democratic institutions to unparalleled corruption and organized crime.

Particularly, given the devastating implications of this failed war on Brazil's society and democratic institutions, the government's silence is deafening. Brazil experiences the highest absolute number of homicides on the planet. For example, in 2012, roughly one Brazilian citizen was assassinated every 10 minutes. According to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, more than 47,000 people were violently killed that year and more than two-thirds executed with firearms.

Unlike some other countries in Latin America, Brazil does not have a system to track deaths due specifically to drug violence and organized crime. Even so, the available data gives some insights into the scale of the problem. In 1980, before the arrival of cocaine, the homicide rate was 11.7 per 100,000. By 2010, the rate had more than doubled to 26.2 per 100,000. In just 30 years, and in the wake of repressive policies of containment and control, more than 1,000,000 Brazilians lost their lives in a war without end.

The notable absence of Brazil from the international debate on drug policy is at odds with its reputation as an emerging global leader. Moreover, its refusal to engage with more progressive approaches to managing drugs reveals a jarring dissonance with its own domestic realities. This is because Brazil is not only experiencing an epidemic of violence generated by militarized approach to controlling drugs, but it is also witnessing a surge in the consumption of all manner of drugs, and transshipment to consuming nations in Western Europe and beyond.

And there are ominous signs that the situation in Brazil could worsen. For example, a major federal-level public security program known as PRONASCI, which funded states' improvements and innovations in the security field, experienced sharp budget cut-backs under the new government that came into power in 2011. This volta face is occurring despite the positive dividends generated on the ground, including the so-called pacification police (UPP) in Rio de Janeiro. In a worrying sign, the new government has also suspended the national plan for the reduction of homicides in 2011 and there are no obvious replacements in sight.

If genuine security and safety dividends are to be achieved in Brazil, the government needs to make some pragmatic choices in relation to national drug policy. For example, law 11.343, passed in 2006 -- which, in theory, exempts drug consumers from prison and thus separates users from traffickers -- needs to be detailed and enforced. But so long as drug consumption is still dealt by the criminal justice, and consumers are publicly vilified as criminals, there is little chance that the law will get much purchase. At a minimum, Brazilian lawmakers need to break the taboo around drugs and initiate an informed debate about alternatives to the status quo.

Over a quarter of Brazil’s inmate population – the fourth largest after the U.S., Russia and China – are serving drug-related sentences or awaiting trial on drug charges. The 2006 legislation initially intended as progressive ended up being regressive. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated for drug-related crimes increased by over 62%. This increase was due primarily to the imprisonment of first-time offenders who had no involvement with organized crime.

In 2012, a Congressional Commission was established to revise the Criminal Code. It recommended the decriminalization of the possession of quantities of drugs sufficient for five days of personal individual use, but there is no sign this will be voted on any time soon. Another bill is being discussed in the Senate that goes against the regional trend by suggesting, among other controversial and somewhat outdated proposals, an increase in the mandatory minimum sentence given to drug dealers. These proposals are still to be voted on by the Brazilian Congress.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide in 2014 if the criminalization of the possession and use of drugs is constitutional. The expectation is that it will decide in favor of the decriminalization of drugs. It is likely that drug policy reform in Brazil will be precipitated by Supreme Court decisions and civil society mobilization and campaigns.

From a public health perspective, it is critical that Brazil and its neighbors offer support to users with chemical dependencies, including for those abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. But without changes to the existing laws and ensuring opportunities for improved treatment, for example, Brazil's recently launched Plan to Combat Crack and Other Drugs will not succeed. Unfortunately, Brazil does not have a public health system ready to support the majority of drug dependents.

More positively, Brazil has shown an impressive level of innovation in the public health and security sectors. Its programs to treat HIV-AIDS and reduce smoking are widely considered world class. Likewise, its community justice interventions and community policing activities are being closely monitored and copied across Latin America. It is inevitable that Brazil will eventually develop more humane approaches to drug policy as it contends with its worst social crisis in decades. But it will also take courage on the part of Brazil's leadership to imagine an alternative. It is also critical that the proposed cure is not worse than the illness.

Brazil faces a real and present danger from which it cannot and must not hide. At the upcoming 2014 presidential election, candidates have an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to building a new architecture for national drug policy. A new approach would emphasize public health, social justice and cultures of peace rather than repression, enforcement and war. If Brazil is to consolidate its international legitimacy and position as promoter of human rights, it needs to adopt more humane policies back home.


Originally published by drogas-en-movimiento.org.

The views, opinions and positions expressed in this guest post are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Transform.