Brazil: As prison populations grow is it time to rethink policy on drugs?

A new São Paulo think tank is urging Brazilians to rethink the country's drug policy. Brazil's drug law changed in 2006, but many say it has backfired as the drug-related prison population has boomed.

RioRealblog cheated on Rio de Janeiro earlier this [month], running off to São Paulo for two days and a night.

There were the constant comparisons: an art Biennial that didn’t hold a candle to the recent wharfside ArtRio fair, an unbeatable crunchy beirute sandwich, much cleaner streets, and the surreal paulistano penchant for the upscale. How could anyone seriously name a building in the Jardins section of the city “Les Jardins des Jardins?"

And there was also an inspiring, imaginative breath of life: the launch of Pense Livre, a network to urge a rethink of Brazil’s drug policy. Policy debate is such a rarity here; though the launch was one-sided, it did throw down a useful and provocative gauntlet.

Rich people are users; poor people are dealers,” said network member Pedro Abramovay, a lawyer and law professor who served as national Justice Secretary under President Lula, and runs the Brazilian branch of the cyber activist NGO, Avaaz.

Brazil’s drug law changed in 2006, ostensibly to make distinctions between users and dealers that would be helpful for its justice and penitentiary systems. It seems to have backfired, say Pense Livre members, with police labeling many young black users from favelas as dealers. They can do this because the 2006 law doesn’t specify quantities of drugs to define who is who. It also increased minimum drug trafficking prison terms from three to five years.

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As a result, the country’s drug trafficking prison population ballooned, up 118 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to an article in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper citing Justice Ministry data. Over the same period, the total prison population grew 37 percent, to almost 500,000.

He was dead by then

This week’s event consisted of brief testimonials from some of the sixty young leaders who make up the network, in a series of three panels. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who anchored last year’s pioneer documentary advocating drug decriminalization, Quebrando o Tabu [Breaking the Taboo], followed the panels with a (surprisingly) short speech.

Fernando Grostein Andrade, director of the film, told of a pre-interview with an armed young drug trafficker, already a father of six. “We asked him what his dream was,” Mr. Grostein recalled. “He said he wanted to be a dancer. We set a date to film the interview the following week, but he was dead by then.”

“It’s time to say ‘enough’,” Grostein added. “The money spent to buy weapons could be used to end all this [violence]. If you can’t wipe out drugs in a maximum security prison, you can’t do it in society at large.”

Other network members noted that legal and bureaucratic restrictions make drug research nearly impossible in Brazil; that Portugal and twenty other countries have decriminalized and seen no surge in drug use; that there are 1.5 million cannabis users (80 percent of all drug users) in Brazil, which points to a need for a regulatory agency; that prohibition creates more damage to society than drug use; that drugs are neither a problem nor a solution, but something that human beings consume and this should be collectively recognized; and that drug policy amounts to social control with racial undertones.

“Who benefits from the drug trade, who are the big fish?" asked Miguel Lago, political scientist and founder of the digital mobilization NGO, Meu Rio. “Who benefits from the current drug policy? We don’t know!”

Pense Livre, organized by the Igarapé Foundation, has four objectives:

  • Decriminalize all drugs and invest in a public health approach to drug use;
  • For cannabis, regulate medicinal use and home cultivation for personal use;
  • Invest in programs for youth at risk, and offer alternative sentencing for non-violent first offenders; and
  • Make medical and scientific research possible, for all drugs.

The large group on the stage of the Itaú Cultural building’s auditorium on Avenida Paulista presented a united front and counts on strong allies, such as the NGO VivaRio, part of a consortium which recently began a consciousness-raising advertising campaign. Last year also saw the launch of the film Cortina de Fumaça [Smokescreen], in addition to Taboo – so Brazilians have had a chance to begin thinking about decriminalization. Congress has already begun work on revising the law.

Another side to the debate

These liberals face an entrenched conservative opposition, buoyed by a media that often fails to report with nuance and depth. The high visibility of official attempts in Rio and São Paulo to get crack users off the street and into treatment may reinforce conservative positions. And the yearly Marcha da Maconha (Marijuana March), which dates back to 1994, still stirs up conflict.

Those who support drug decriminalization point to Prohibition in the United States, saying its repeal helped to regulate alcohol consumption and reduce crime and violence.

It is quite something to imagine a Rio de Janeiro where cariocas [locals] tranquilly grow and smoke their own, with no more gun-toting dealer armies, or trigger-happy cops. Ideally, the city would become fully integrated, fully accessible and safe.

But drug trafficking as we know it may be on its way out in Rio de Janeiro, anyway. Ten years from now, some “Friquonômicas” analyst may “discover” that the Internet, cell phones and full employment had more to do with the success of pacification than the hundreds of police and dozens of security cameras used this week, for example, to set up Rio’s 28th police pacification unit, in Rocinha.

Or maybe the story will be that so many young black men were killed in Rio’s long undeclared wars among and against drug traffickers, that in the second decade of the second millennium few were left to father those who would roll the joints and raise the rifles.

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

No such thing as being poor enough, if you’re a cop

All of  which makes one wonder what the militias – often consisting of off-duty or former cops and firemen – will be up to in ten years. Soon, they’ll be more easily investigated and brought to justice, by way of a new congressional bill. Still, wage and training issues, plus the swelling ranks of the Rio military police force, meant to grow from the current 44,000 to 60,000 by 2016, could provide eager recruits for the still-poorly regulated transportation, bottled gas, cable tv and other businesses run by paramilitary gangs.

Despite investigations and some arrests, a strong connection persists betweenmilicianos and city and state government. Rio’s regional electoral court says it’s watching thirty city council candidates in the upcoming October election, whose profiles are shady. Only a wholesale push for political transparency, responsibility and accountability can change this picture.

Last weekend, a former elite squad commander with the incredibly befitting last name of Príncipe (Prince), refused to take a Breathalyzer test at an Operação Lei Seca [Dry Law Operation] roadblock, when stopped driving a Porsche worth $ 325,000 dollars. Mr. Príncipe said he’d paid for the car with his own money, earned from a sideline in security, and that before the Porsche, he drove a Jaguar.

Pobreza pouca é bobagem, he added, making reference to the popular saying, desgraça pouca é bobagem [When it rains, it pours]– “There’s no such thing as being poor enough.”

RioRealblog thanks André Gordirro for his translation help.

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