Brazil's drug users will get help, instead of jail

Sweeping new laws are based on the view that drug users need treatment, not criminal punishment.

On the continent that produces most of the world's cocaine and much of its heroin and marijuana, its largest country is softening punishment on recreational drug users.

The Brazilian Congress adopted landmark legislation that substitutes alternative punishments such as community service and rehabilitation for custodial sentences. The government will now treat recreational drug users not as criminals, but as people in need of medical and psychological help.

"Smoking marijuana is not a crime," says Paulo Roberto Uchoa, the general who heads Brazil's National Antidrug Secretariat. "A drug user is ... someone who needs counseling and information. The ones who traffic drugs are the criminals."

The new legislation makes Brazil the first major South American country to introduce more lenient legislation concerning drugs and follows the trend in Europe where a host of nations including Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal and Britain, have softened their stances toward minor drug possession.

Although regional experts say Brazil's decision is unlikely to spur similar strategies in other Latin American nations - partly because the United States is so opposed to such measures - Brazilian officials are celebrating what they say is a humane and common-sense response to a problem that refuses to go away.

"A drug user is not a case for the police, he's a drug addict," says Elias Murad, the Congressman who sponsored the bill. "He's more of a medical and social problem than a police problem, and that's the way thinking is going these days, not just here in Brazil but the world over. We believe that you can't send someone who is ill to jail."

With 170 million people and a large middle class, there is a steady market for drugs in Brazil. Although heroin use is almost unheard of, the use of cocaine is not uncommon in big cities, and the popularity of crack cocaine is growing in poor urban areas.

Marijuana is so popular that the drug is smoked openly on the country's beaches and in bars and discos. One recently released study by the World Health Organization showed that in Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paulo, 80 percent of youngsters between the ages of 16 and 24 say they know of someone who has used the drug.

Until now, anyone caught with small quantities of drugs could be sentenced to between six months and two years in prison.

Under Mr. Murad's law, first-time offenders not guilty of trafficking drugs face one or more punishments that include obligatory rehabilitation programs, community service, fines, or loss of their driving license.

The law makes no distinction between hard drugs and soft drugs, and judges will decide on sentences, Murad says.

Getting the law through Congress was a long struggle for Murad, a doctor who runs more than 50 drug prevention and rehabilitation centers in his home state of Minas Gerais.

He introduced the bill in 1991, but it was not approved by the lower house until 1996. It took another five years before the Senate, after making minor alterations, ratified the legislation and passed it back to the lower house, where it was approved last week.

Drug experts hope those in charge of Brazil's health, legal, and prison systems will act more quickly than the politicians. The new laws will heavily impact each of those branches, says Ricardo de Oliveira Silva, a prosecutor who has campaigned for alternative sentences.

Perhaps the greatest immediate effects will be felt in Brazil's prisons. Mr. Silva says the legislation could mean judges send one-third fewer people to jail, thus helping to reduce overcrowding in the country's already packed jails. At least three Brazilian states have successfully adopted similar programs already, and both state and federal officials admit that police in other states were using their discretion to caution small-time drug users and give them the option of treatment or trial.

Courts, too, will benefit because suspects who agree to undergo rehabilitation without first going to trial will have their arrests wiped from the book. As those found guilty will face rehabilitation anyway, prosecutors expect the overwhelming majority of suspects to accept the punishment without trial, thus saving valuable time and money.

But while the news will be welcomed by the people who run Brazil's prisons, it will be met with trepidation at the country's Health Ministry, where officials will have to quickly train professionals to deal with a massive increase in the number of people entering rehabilitation programs. If additional funding is not immediately forthcoming, the system's meagre resources could be strained, says Silva.

"We have been in touch with them to tell them to prepare. But my worry is that they won't be ready for the new reality," he says. "This is going to put a lot of pressure on the country's health system."

In the long term, however, the programs should be cost efficient, Silva says, because out-patient therapy is much cheaper than locking up offenders. In addition, the recidivism rate will be expected to fall as drug users are helped out of dependency. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where treatment replaced prison terms, the recidivism rate has been halved from 85 percent two years ago, says drug czar Uchoa.

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