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May 2003

For the Right of Getting High in Brazil

Should drug consumption be made legal in Brazil? Many Brazilian
leaders, including judges, are in favor of such legalization.
They believe that the more repression against drugs there is,
the more Brazilians will be subject to violence and crime. According
to them, the blame for narcotrafficking should be put on the law.

Adriana Veloso


The auditorium, modeled like a courtroom, receives its special guests with anticipation, along with more than 100 people who are present, in the Philosophy and Social Sciences building of the UFJR (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro—Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) in downtown Rio. It's mid-May and the public forum will discuss a fundamental question for Carioca daily life: "Democracy, Human Rights, War and Narco-Trafficking."

Retired Judge Maria Lúcia Karam makes the central point: "The state made consumption of some substances illegal. Now, we have prohibition as a form of intervention against the freedom of the individual." Her words set the tone of the debate.

A professor in the Masters Program of Penal Sciences at Cândido Mendes University, the judge explains that today, "the worst publicity trick is played in advertising and selling the penal system as a product-service that sells protection and security," and places the State in the seat of the accused. And the accusations are strong ones.

The warning is shot: The more State repression, the more violence.

Public Insecurity

The forum takes place inside a Carioca reality, where, on television, the message is a lesson of fear, or "distorted reasoning," as Judge Karam states. "The state should be blamed for the violence because it was the state that made illegal the drug market," she clarifies.

Luiz Eduardo Soares, who was interviewed here by reporters from Globo TV and daily Folha de S. Paulo, brought the official word from Brasília. Soares is the National Public Safety Secretary. He believes that his job is to "assure the right of the citizenry to liberty." The Secretary also ponders that "Civil Society must be protected from an authoritarian guardian."

"The State has a de-educating role," Karam affirms, explaining that "the worst danger of criminality is that it serves as a pretext that leads to totalitarianism."

This way the hearing makes it clear to its leading defendant that the errors of the past have caused the injustices of the present.

Soares explains, briefly, that his role in the administration of President Lula da Silva is "to apply the national security plan in a manner that defends rights and liberties."

"Organized crime becomes an invisible network that permeates public institutions, infiltrating the system," he observes.

In counterpoint, Karam says, "by making certain goods and services illegal, the penal system functions as the true creator of criminality and violence."

The demand for a "radical change," as stated by Soares, must be applied in many spheres so that the state "manipulating the fear and insecurity provoked by real or imaginary actions," as stated by Karam, must be impeded from "widening punitive power and intensifying control over the lives of individuals."

The government strategy arrives at its crucial moment: "The public officials that today include the 550,000 police who work for the State, must be given political training because they are armed. They will either be a force for barbarism or for human rights," says Soares.

For him, the mission, and this generates laughter in the audience, "is to make the police come out of the closet: they deserve attention and not fear, but they must work with dignity and with a peaceful orientation."

Violence in Rio

"The perception of the favela (shantytown) as a place of evil is fed by the media," notes Itamar Silva of the Bento Rubião Foundation, which works with Carioca communities. "The absence of human rights in the favela is quite clear in the case of the girl shot at Estácio de Sá college and that of the eight youths killed on Turano Hill." The names of the eight youths, all under 17 years of age, who were executed by police in a clear case of "shoot first, ask questions later" were not divulged by the newspapers nor mentioned on television.

"In the case of Luciana Novaes," the girl killed at Estácio de Sá, "the majority of the population felt comfortable with the resulting repression in the favela," notes Silva.

"Look at the fact that young people use drugs, that they want to experiment with drugs," explained Célia Szterenfeld, representing the Aborda (Associação Brasileira de Redução de Danos—Brazilian Harm Reduction Association) at the forum. The youths have constant access to them. And "the government's discourse is made on two levels: that of abstinence, as portrayed by anti-drug campaigns, and that of chemical dependence in extreme cases," she said as the forum's voice for Harm Reduction.

This strategy, which has recently been embraced by public policy, dialogues with the majority that is found between those two extremes, whether it's a public official drinking a draft beer on a Friday night, or the tobacco smoker, or the user of marijuana or other drugs. Szterenfeld outlined the "need for honest drug education."

The State denies that drugs exist and says they must be treated only with repression. "This false image impedes the truth that public health is being harmed. Prohibition causes more damage to users than the use or abuse of the drugs," concluded Karam.

The Individual and the State

Federal Congressman Fernando Gabeira criticizes the new advertising campaign being shown in Rio de Janeiro and other states that says "he who buys drugs is financing the violence."

"No!" says this pioneer of the fight to decriminalize drug users, "the violence is produced by the repression!" During his presentation, Gabeira recited the history of disaster in the governmental campaigns, causing laughter in the audience. "The first one said `Drugs? Not even dead!' What a heavy concept! It's better to live using drugs than to die!" Then, he recalls the sad "I'm straight, but I'm happy" campaign. "It seems that this person needs to use drugs to feel pleasure!"

For judge Karam, "Taking advantage of the mystery and fantasy that surround substances that were made illegal… the maximum State, vigilant and omnipresent, with drugs qualified as illicit tends to the post-modern needs of creating new enemies and ghosts."

"The loser in all this manipulation is the people. This conduct disturbs the liberty and choices of the individual," says Karam.

Szterenfeld concluded that, "to blame the user is irresponsible and goes against human rights." When the government doesn't comply with the duties designated by its power, it exercises coercion to "install a pedagogy of fear," she added.

Thinking About Production

The reality of urban violence is headed to "Rural Brazil." Eraldo José de Souza, of the rural workers union of São Francisco, spoke of the price of onions and yucca root, "plants that today yield 10 or 12 reals (three or four dollars) per week, while a plantation of marijuana gives the rural worker 50 to 150 reals per week (fifteen to fifty dollars)." What's rare in the Southeast is becoming quite common in the Northeast where there are indications of a poppy crop, which could be the start of a heroin market in Brazil. De Souza asks, "If the rural worker in the United States can plant tobacco, why can't the Northeastern Brazilian plant cannabis?"

It should be grown at least for medicinal use, as in the case of hemp with the substance THC, the active drug in marijuana, which serves as a treatment for chemotherapy patients. "Are we condemned to buy medicines made in the United States where they permit the planting of cannabis to make them?" asked Congressman Gabeira.

"The State cannot allow the creation of excessive laws," says Judge Karam, who adds that, "there has been an ineffective attempt at control by policing." With the other participants in this hearing, she arrives at the verdict: "We need to make public safety policies with the people in the communities."

The discussion of drug policy continues for another day of public debate. Gabeira, one of the founders of the movement, says that, "I feel very happy to see that people are finally discussing the issue of drugs more honestly."

Adriana Veloso is a journalist living in São Paulo. She runs a personal weblog called "Body Without Organs" (http://www.drica.tk ). You can contact her at adriana@narconews.com 

This article was originally published in Narco News -  www.narconews.com

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