Setting sights on future of drug policy
August 5, 2009
Participants of the Seminar "Drugs Policies: Progresses and Retrocessions", held in Rio de Janeiro by Viva Rio and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, recommend drug policy based on respect for human rights, developed from a public health perspective, that favors scientific research and includes strategies to prevent drug addiction. Luciana Boiteux underlined the disparity that exists between the depenalization of drug use and the increased penalization of selling drugs that resulted from the 2006 Law on Drugs.
Participants of the Seminar "Drugs Policies: Progresses and Retrocessions", held in Rio de Janeiro by Viva Rio and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, recommend drug policy based on respect for human rights, developed from a public health perspective, that favors scientific research and includes strategies to prevent drug addiction.
This recommendation was developed by the participants of this meeting during an interactive workshop and will be presented to the First National Conference of Public Security (Conseg), which will take place in Brasilia this August. Conseg is the first national conference to be held in Brazil, in an effort to democratize the debate about security-related policies in this country.
A number of people who are directly involved in researching, developing and implementing drug policies attended the seminar in Rio de Janeiro, such as the Secretary of Human Rights, Paulo Vanucchi, and the Secretary of Legislative Affairs of the Ministry of Justice, Pedro Abramovay, who underlined the importance of this seminar as a way for civil society to participate in developing drug policies.
Minister Vanucchi highlighted the importance of approaching the issue nationally from a public health perspective, as part of a harm reduction strategy. However, he warned that to further the debate with other sectors requires an open and honest discussion of all issues, yet maintaining a reconciliatory climate. "Personally, I believe that it’s best to avoid divisive strategies and favor a broad dialogue that encompasses all points of view...Everything should be discussed without people becoming entrenched in their rigid positions. However, we also shouldn’t underestimate the amount of conservatism that still persists in all sectors of Brazilian society", he stated.
The other government members agreed that current drugs legislation is inadequate and stated their commitment to finding short term solutions. "The new Law on Drugs, 2006 makes some progress, like no longer imprisoning users but it’s still incomplete and ambiguous", said Deputy Drug Policy Secretary, Paulina Duarte, who will receive the memo of principles and guidelines drafted by the conference-workshop participants and present them at the Conseg.
Face to face
Researchers and activists who work closely with communities expressed a great concern over the slow pace of progress and they asked for concrete actions, especially actions to address the violence that is a direct result of the fight against the drug trade.
"Every day I have a mother crying on my shoulder over the death of her child. I just have one question: would selling drugs at the newsstand on the corner bring an end to the killing of our youth? Legislation in Brazil is evolving, but its implementation isn’t. Every day we see increasingly younger kids using crack. Does legislation solve this problem? Up to what point?" asked doctor Margarida Pressburger. Pressburger is the president of the Committee for Human Rights of the Brazilian Bar Association.
Lawyer and professor of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Luciana Boiteux underlined the disparity that exists between the depenalization of drug use and the increased penalization of selling drugs that resulted from the 2006 Law on Drugs. Although the fact that the use of drugs is no longer a crime is certainly progress, it seems disproportionate to establish maximum prison sentences of 5 years for the sale of very minor quantities of drugs. “The sale of drugs is classified as a heinous crime under Brazilian legislation, this means it is worse than theft,” she said.
The author of a study commissioned by the Ministry of Justice that will be published next week on the characteristics of people convicted of drug dealing, Boiteux stated that 66.4% of those arrested for drug dealing had no prior criminal record; 91.9% were caught in the act; 60.8% were acting alone, that means not associated with any criminal groups; 14.1% were carrying a weapon and 83.9% were male. Furthermore, her research revealed that 58% of those arrested for this crime were sentenced to five years of prison. In many cases the maximum sentence was awarded more because of the judge’s personal prejudice than an actual justification for doing so. In most cases the accused is stigmatized for living in a favela (slum) and it’s assumed that he is involved with a criminal group that is active in that area.
“We need to study who these young people are; they are not being given a choice of an alternative sentence or some way to involve them in the labor market. Quite the contrary, they will leave prison stigmatized and more likely to commit crimes”, confirmed Boiteux.
Graciela Touze, representative of the Argentinean organization Intercambios, noted a similar situation in Argentina, where most people convicted of dealing drugs are young men with no prior criminal record, who were arrested in public, unarmed, in possession of minor quantities of drugs and are convicted to the full extent of the law.
Other international guests spoke of new measures that are being implemented elsewhere. Journalist Glen Greenwald mentioned the decriminalization of drug use in Portugal eight years ago, which has resulted in a decrease in drug use as well as an improvement in public security stats.
Peruvian lawyer Ricardo Soberón explained several initiatives undertaken in the Andes region, such as a pardon for approximately 3000 small-scale drug dealers in Ecuador, as part of a policy to persecute large-scale drug dealers instead of imprisoning those who are responsible for the distribution of small quantities.
Ready for Action
In order to transform these discussions into concrete proposals or recommendations that can reach a greater audience, the second part of the seminar included a workshop in which the participants discussed a series of ideas to create a list of principles and guidelines to be presented to Conseg.
The first recommended principle is to adopt a systematic view on drug policies; a view that approaches the issue from an interdisciplinary perspective and that includes healthcare, education, justice and police in its joint implementation efforts.
Other principles include the respect for human rights. All participants agreed that any drug policy needs to include a focus on human rights. Furthermore, scientific research is required to move away from purely speculative discussions and provide a basis for a well-informed and rational debate.
The workshop participants also stated that prevention should be a fundamental component of any drug policy and that the UN premise for a “world free of drugs” is a completely utopian ideal. Instead, resources and efforts should be used effectively to prevent the abuse of narcotic drugs.
The group recommended some of the following guidelines for implementing these principles: value local knowledge in developing drug policies; train and educate professionals who work with drugs; respect cultural diversity; promote a broad discussion in society; demilitarize actions and approaches; expand the range of alternative sentences and conditional sentences and reduce prison sentences; expand strategies for harm reduction and create organizations to research the issue and reintegrate drug addicts into society.
These proposals are being made at a crucial time for change. Rubem Cesar Fernandes, executive director of Viva Rio, explained that the international debate is open to change; the recent divide that emerged in the consensus among the members of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs is evidence of changing times. Fernandes also noted that several changes are occurring across the region that will be implemented step by step, in terms of addressing the issues and in terms of what is happening within each region. This seminar and its recommendations to Conseg signal some of the changes that are occurring in Brazil.