Regulatory policy

Will the upcoming elections bring changes to Brazil’s drug policy?

The 2022 general elections in Brazil will take place on October 2. Despite the traditional myriad of presidential candidates, including former minister Ciro Gomes, voters will realistically choose between the left-wing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers’ Party), who was president from 2003 to 2010, and the extreme right Jair Messias Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), the current president since 2019. Lula leads the polls in the projections for the first and second round scenarios. Let’s see what the candidates can bring to drug policy.

Jair Bolsonaro

Since 2019, when Jair Bolsonaro took office as President of Brazil, we have seen a resurgence of police violence and drug policy regression advancements. Bolsonaro signed a new drug law during the first year of his government, modifying the previous law of 2006 signed by the then president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The new legislation has toughened penalties for drug trafficking associations and will bring even tougher results after the drug trafficking bill. narcoterrorism passed in the Senate in 2021 and reinstated involuntary commitment for people who use drugs. In 2020, Bolsonaro’s Department of Justice and Public Safety issued a resolution authorizing the engagement of children as young as 12 in rehabilitation clinics, a policy that was critical by former ministers of health. He also instructed the Brazilian delegation to vote against the postponement of cannabis at the 63rd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs and lobbied against the regulation of cannabis and hemp culture in Brazil.

Bolsonaro has yet to release his manifesto, but recent eventshe reaffirmed his prohibitionist position by stating that “we don’t want to legalize drugs or abortion.“If elected, he is likely to continue to encourage and celebrate the extrajudicial executions of suspected drug traffickers: he said during his first year in office that under his rule, criminals “will die in the street like cockroaches.” So far he has kept his promise and has continued to praise the police force who killed an unprecedented number of people since the start of his regime four years ago.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

In 2006, Lula signed a drug law which theoretically aimed to decriminalize drug possession for personal use. The law distinguishes users from traffickers on the basis of possession of small or large quantities of illicit substances. However, it does not define precise amounts, leaving the distinction between “small” and “large” amounts to the discretion of the police officers who apply the law. The application of the law is thus influenced by racial and social prejudicecontributing enormously to the mass incarceration process since it was enacted. In 2005, 9% of the Brazilian prison population was serving a sentence for drug-related offences. In 2021, this total has increased to 29.4%. Of the female prison population, nearly 56% are incarcerated for drug-related offences, as are nearly 29% of the male population.

If elected, Lula will have the chance to review the national drug policy and correct the errors that ended up distorting the decriminalization attempt. It will, however, have to come up with an appropriate action plan, something that needs to be quite different from the generic statement in his electoral manifesto– a statement which, without a doubt, is addressed to the (imaginary?) conservative voters. In a single point, the manifesto affirms:

“The country needs a new anti-drug policy, intersectoral and focused on harm reduction, prevention, treatment and assistance to users. The current military model of the fight against trafficking will be replaced by strategies of confrontation and dismantling of criminal organizations, based on knowledge and information, with the strengthening of investigation and intelligence.

In terms of evidence, dismantling and confronting criminal organizations with strategies based on existing knowledge is to legalize and regulate drugs. Reforming the stakes with another failed attempt at decriminalization would certainly be a step in the right direction, but it is only a palliative. Maintaining the production and distribution of certain illegal substances is a recipe for creating illegal markets, and the last 100 years of prohibition around the world provide all the evidence needed to support legalization.

I agree with Lula: the country needs a new drug policy – ​​and we desperately need it, I would add. But we cannot afford to call the fight against illicit supply – “knowledge, information, investigation and intelligence” mobilized to dismantle criminal groups – a “new” approach that could lead to “new” policies. And treatment, support and risk (harm?) reduction should be basic rights, of course. But we cannot forget the people who do not need treatment and who do not have a problematic relationship with substances. Moving from a penal approach to a public health approach box be an improvement, of course, but only if it does not imply a generalized pathologization of drug use. If pathologization and abstinence-based recovery will be the approach, then it will be nothing new: Bolsonaro has already implemented such a system, tolerated by the UN. which treats drug use as an epidemic to be controlled.