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Brazzil - Issue - April 2004

Brazil, Legalize Drugs, Now!

This is a twelve-point proposal to legalize drugs in Brazil.
Decriminalization of narcotics use and legalization of their
production may be the only viable way to fight Rio's drug
problem efficiently and peacefully. These issues apply not
only to Rio, but also to the United States and Canada.

Norman Madarasz


Picture Rio de Janeiro has recently seen some difficult moments in a narcotraffic turf war whose center stage this time was Rocinha, South America's largest and most developed favela slum.

Five consecutive nights over Easter weekend pitted two rival gangs and police in a battle for possession of the heights of the favela, which happens to sit atop a mountain neighboring two of Rio's poshest districts.

Under the morro runs the Gávea-to-Barra highway tunnel, one of the city's major thruways. The bottom row of the favela's houses literally leans over the tunnel entrance. A dozen persons died in the violence, including Rocinha's top drug lord, who was killed by police.

Events were set off early Good Friday morning with movement from a gang controlling the nearby favela of Vidigal. Heavily armed, the gangsters streamed out onto scenic Avenida Niemeyer and set up a false police `blitz'. Their midnight bid to take control of Rocinha began with car theft.

Police first spotted movement after a woman was murdered for refusing to stop her vehicle at the roadblock. A few hours later, all hell broke loose in the slum as gun battles broke out in the night. Earlier as the stolen cars penetrated Rocinha, two policemen were shot dead.

Police reinforcements were quickly sent. At first, 300 were added to the favela's regular three-shift squad of 180 (April 10).Then, 900 military police and 90 plain-clothes were dispatched (April 12). By the end of Easter weekend, up to 1200 policemen, including special squads such as the "BOPE", were scouring the favela to hunt down Rocinha's kingpins and separate the invaders who were also reportedly using mountain pathways by which the two slums are remotely connected. By Monday, police had killed Luciano Barbosa da Silva, aka Lulu, the favela's kingpin, and were occupying his fortress atop the Rocinha Mountain.

The fighting contrasted little with scenes projected on TV screens from ten thousand miles away in the heat of the desert sun. At dawn, after a night's violence, residents fled their homes. Earlier in the darkness tracer bullets had lit up the sky. Helicopters flying permanently overhead beamed search lights into the area.

One copter was even hit with a shot. Not that this act of `resistance' should be in any way surprising in a State where the sole response to violence is further violence—despite the lives of 28,000 citizens living ordinary, working lives in the favela.

A few days earlier, after a police shooting incident left a four-year-old boy dead in another favela, the State security secretary, Anthony Garotinho, was reported to have told residents the child died because he lived in a neighborhood that housed violent criminals.

His solution for containing violence at Rocinha was a parody of Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to wall off the Palestinians. Just that now Rocinha's residents would be sealed in by a wall supposedly to ward off outside invasions.

Apart from having one of the most spectacular views in Rio, Rocinha is otherwise a model community as far as poverty goes. State infrastructure is relatively present here. There are banks and post offices, and many people actually pay for electricity. Even tours are organized for tourists.

After the violence came to an end, the Carioca (residents of Rio de Janeiro) were nonplussed. It would happen all over again, if not in Rocinha then elsewhere in the city's 120 favelas. Television cameras were set on the husband of Telma Veloso, the middle-class woman slain early on Friday morning. He challenged the city's narcotics consumers—especially those from the middle classes—to abstain from their habit for a month, and then analyze the financial state of the drug gangs.

Specialists spoke of reorganizing the city's police forces. Federal politicians debated over whether it was necessary to send in the army. And Rio de Janeiro's nepotistic evangelical State government, shifted power from an altogether absent governor, Rosângela Rosinha Garotinho Barros Assed Matheus de Oliveira, better known as Rosinha Matheus (apparently soaking up the sun unperturbed in the resort of Angra dos Reis) to the man she appointed to handle security questions, her own husband, Anthony Garotinho.

Meanwhile the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Cesar Maia, slid in the stupid idea again of declaring an emergency security state in which civil liberties would be partly suspended. Totally stupid, indeed, because if there is one state body the Cariocas completely mistrust apart from their own government, it's the police forces. How could anyone even believe it possible for a second to grant such power to these diverse trigger-happy law enforcement bodies that lack coordination, to say nothing of adequate training and education?

Amidst the fray, no one dared whisper an obvious option: complete legalization of pot (maconha, in local parlance) and cocaine. Not the media, nor sociologists, nor middle class substance consumers, let alone the government. If drugs were a plague, prohibition is its infectious vector.

Here then is a twelve-point proposal. Its purpose is to argue why decriminalization of narcotics use and legalization of their production may be the only viable way to fight Rio's drug problem efficiently and peacefully—to say nothing of the world's drug problem insofar as it is a problem.

Ever since the 19th century "opium wars" waged by England to smash China's tea monopoly, drugs have indeed been the underhand to international trade. The drug business trace the labyrinthine antechambers or back alleys of the World Trade Organization.

This is why the issues discussed here apply not only to the neglect of Rio's terrible condition, but to the fact that curbing one focal point alone is utterly useless. These prescriptions therefore also apply to the United States and Canada.

1). In the drug question, abuse or addiction is merely a medical issue; its social dimension is secondary to the question of legalization.

The drug business is a trade in the full market sense of the term. The ability to rationally discuss legalization, however, entirely depends on explaining away abuse addiction as the reason for the trade. Otherwise the use of prohibited drugs is easily co-opted as a vice, indeed a sin given the persuasive power of religions in Rio de Janeiro.

Or it's exalted by the jet set for its wealth-specific glamour and decadence. In the meantime, any one can drink alcohol (cachaça being as "hard" a drug as cocaine), smoke tobacco, drink coffee, to say nothing of consuming anti-depressives, Prozac, sleeping pills and any other substance arbitrarily deemed acceptable by the medical and lead communities to consume.

2) As a trade, narcotics—renamed here in economic terms, "substances"—are lockstepped with an enormous network of production, distribution, consumption and investment.

Its structure is purely commercial despite being illegal—which is precisely why legalization with a view to better controlling them is entirely feasible.

3) "Taking" or "using" drugs (that is, substances) is neither entirely the result of their being illegal and therefore a kind of temptation, nor is it a sinful vice in even the mildest of senses.

As with other substances, i.e. body additives, they stimulate neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline and dopamine, in order to give the body certain desired pleasures. Consuming substances may be done for purposes of insomnia, stress, fatigue, depression, and other moods disruptive of an individual's capacity to work.

Enjoying other substances may be done to stimulate creativity, sexuality, spiritual exercises or muscle tone. Among the mid-range mood-altering drugs, alcohol is universally legal in Christian countries (which is the domain to which this analysis applies), although some higher potency alcohols are prohibited with respect to specific national jurisdictions (e.g. absinthe in France, moonshine in Canada and the U.S.).

What is quite accepted by the international medical community is that alcohol is one of the most addictive drugs. For the year 2000 in the US, alcohol consumption caused an estimated 3.5 percent or 85,000 deaths (without counting the 16, 543 alcohol-related automobile fatalities). It was led only by poor diet physical inactivity and the ravages of another addictive pleasure, tobacco (16.6 percent, 18.2 percent respectively). Moreover, alcoholism is regularly cited as one of the main vectors of household violence. But our society has unwittingly accepted alcoholism as a necessary risk, or side effect for the availability of alcohol. To be sure, not only is it symptomatic for an alcoholic to deny her illness, but most drinkers still refuse to consider alcohol a drug.

4) Criminalization of substances, i.e. "drugs" or "narcotics", is orchestrated on behalf of the State's vision of order.

The modern State was built upon a principle best defined by German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). It is a "human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory."

Since the defeat of fascism in the 1940s—which was a continuation of the modern state into paroxysm—this monopoly has been increasingly contested by the population (i.e. civil society), grown in strength as a function of the middle-class consumer state.

This contestation has taken the shape of a deep critique of the State's monopoly of violence as incompatible with the aspirations of a democratic society, or indistinguishable from a doctrine of State terror (Noam Chomsky).

Meanwhile, the full-scale revolution triggered in the 1960s by the affluence of the Western middle classes expressed a broader quest for citizens' equal rights to those of the State ("The Rights Revolution", in Michael Ignatieff's expression).

Prohibition of cocaine and alcohol in the United States in 1914 and 1920 respectively, but especially the banning of marijuana and LSD in the late 1960s, and the declaration of war on drugs by the first Bush administration in the late 1980s, are nothing but renewed attempts by the State to reassert its monopoly on using force legitimately over and above citizens' demands.

5) Legalizing narcotics is a sound principle in market terms, individual rights and political egalitarianism.

Its basic premise is to make the illegal drug trade accountable to society by taxing it. The citizens of Rio de Janeiro are absolutely right to demand that middle class drug consumers be "stick some shame in their faces", in a bad translation of a great Portuguese expression. Owing to a lack of cogent discussion on the subject, however, the ends of this rationale are mistaken.

For various reasons, the sharp urbanization and rural depopulation our societies have undergone in forty years has made drug consumption a common practice. Yet in reason of (4) the State has refused up until most recently to allow mind altering drugs to freely circulate.

Prozac has opened new possibilities, though, which is why it can be claimed that the State has been typically more receptive to lobbying pressures from the huge biotech sector to allow certain substances on the marketplace which only they produce—instead of the natural products anyone else can grow and develop at very low costs.

What also blocks marijuana from decriminalization today is the same patent lobby copyrighting your genome variation and various herbal substances found in the world's rain forests. It also points to those controlling who can manufacture AIDS medication and at what cost.

6) The Brazilian substance trade cannot be compared to the Netherlands, Canada or Switzerland, but must be to the U.S.

The Netherlands legalized all narcotics in the 1970s. In the age of AIDS, where one of the quickest vectors of infection is needle sharing among heroin and crack cocaine users, the Netherlands boasts of their success at keeping AIDS at a minimum, and with just cause.

Canada, and especially Quebec and British Columbia, in practice have shown great tolerance toward marijuana and hashish use. Some provinces have distributed needles for free. But in recent years, Quebec faced a gang war of unprecedented violence. Its municipal and provincial police forces, and the Canadian police force in general, have been very restrained in their use of violence to curb the drug trade.

The Quebec situation proved that tolerance is not enough. It leaves a void in which criminal factions can easily enter to take advantage of legal vacancy and end up controlling what the State has thus far shied away from. As on many other issues, the Canadian Supreme Court has shown itself particularly sensitive to citizens' rights.

It has refused to reinforce a ban on substance use for medical purposes as well as for possession in small quantities for personal use. In May 2003, Canadian Parliament decriminalized the personal use of marijuana, making possession of the drug a noncriminal offense punishable with a ticket and a fine, similar to those issued for traffic violations.

Yet it has failed to take a firm position on use per se, and policing has been reinforced regarding production, targeting even small producers. But the cat is out the bag, and a broad segment of Canadians no longer chastises pot as the source of social ills.

The Brazilian situation is not completely unique, nor typically "third world". It is most akin to the total repression by the State apparatus characteristic of the US war on drugs and tolerance-zero policy. In turn, it has triggered widespread violence.

7) As predicted by Aldous Huxley, substances are simply one among various pleasure products offered by modern consumer society.

With the social malaise (Freud) and anomy (Durkheim) that increasingly began to affect Western society in the wake of the defeat of the reform movements of the 1960s, whose purpose was to grant increased political and economic power to the middle classes, Western societies have witnessed the installation of a stark shareholder capitalist economic model matching the general regression of middle class political power.

One of its main characteristics was to unfold an intense movement of capital dubbed "globalization". Internationalization had long been an idea of Marx's and amongst communist social reformers. Globalization calked itself atop of the latter's social and cultural accomplishments, but especially to open capital markets to transnational trade.

This in turn led to the explosion of factory relocations and the rule of tax havens, i.e. national banks opening branches and subsidiaries along the Swiss model of secrecy throughout the Caribbean islands, European principalities and smaller nations, and certain African and Asian states.

As some important work from the French think-tank ATTAC and retired French criminal prosecutor specialized in white-collar crime and corruption, Eva Joly, have described, tax havens have flattened the difference between legally and illegally acquired revenues. To further their point, one need only examine the phenomenon of money laundering.

The trade in prohibited substances, be it drugs, prostitution or arms, cannot survive without money laundering. Yet after having been laundered the money sits in tax havens the world over in a system set up and sponsored by the Bretton Woods institutions and the international banking community.

8) Legalization is a country's full commitment to its population.

It cannot succeed without a solid taxation system, public information and education as to what substances can do, and objective analysis on why their use is hardly a matter for social breakdown. It is important to bring substances out of the shadow to give individuals control over quality.

Parents who do not believe their children are tempted by substances are in denial: if they do care about their children, they should ensure that their child knows about the substances with which they may or may not experiment. We must ensure quality control, and the availability of proper medical assistance should any malaise be triggered.

Moreover, it is pure hypocrisy for parents with a background of pill-popping to chastise their children for smoking grass. The legalized apparatus of narcotics is something we owe to our kid's safety, as is the harmony of the society we are passing on to them.

9) The prohibition and criminal circulation of drugs is both a direct and indirect way of keeping poor communities preoccupied with other issues than social change.

Legalization should not be pursued for the sake of further disrupting these communities. Besides, we need the pre-existent infrastructure to organize the substance market, i.e. the self-generated trading network that has brought income into areas abandoned by oligarchic capitalism.

The producers, distributors, dealers and delivery personnel to middle class districts must all be kept. Their members, those with no history of murder, ought to be given pardons once decriminalization measures have been implemented. Market conditions regulating best prices must be implanted.

But cartels have to be identified and penalized. Money deposits and receipts distributed. Tax exemptions of enterprises in the slums imposed. Smuggling must be combated, but an affluent smuggling trade must be recognized as a sign indicating when taxation has reached critical mass.

10) As in Canada and Holland, the only way legalization can work is with the complete State control of guns and a commitment to phasing out the arms industry as whole. These industrial parasites are among the world's lowliest beings. As a major small arms exporter, Brazil has a lot of potential to enforce arms control in their own society.

11) Implementation: given the dominance of the Garotinho couple and their evangelical clan on Rio de Janeiro state politics, perhaps 20 years. Although the time to launch the process is obviously here and now.

12) As the U.S. War on drugs is fundamentally opposed to the previous eleven points for religious, political and commercial reasons (though not in that specific order), it is impossible to realistically conceive of legalization in either Brazil or Colombia. So hold on tight, because living in the postmodern metropolis is only going to get much worse:

- for the lower classes and the fight over the drug trade,

- for the middle classes and the evaporating safety of public space,

- for the upper class despite their expensive private security apparatus that they shamelessly finance to the detriment of participating as citizens in building a state-of-the-art public police apparatus.

CONCLUSION: With ever increasing high unemployment among the youth, the State's financial apparatus will keep clashing with this population, whether poor or affluent. Yet violence only incites more violence. In turn, authoritarian violence provokes criminal violence. Prisons are schools for crime. Filling them will only create more outlaw behavior.

Breaking this cycle is an optimal moment for showing Brazil's famed espertismo. When a government at least appears to be receptive to novel ideas, the opportunity to open debate on legalizing the substances presently known as narcotics must be seized.

Norman Madarasz, Ph.D., has written extensively on Brazilian economics, politics and culture, as on philosophy and international political economic relations. He lives and works in Rio de Janeiro with his Carioca-born wife and son, welcoming comments at nmphdiol2@yahoo.ca.

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