WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 May 2013 | Commentary | News

Brazil Poised to Pass Harsh, Rights-Violating Drug Law

By Joseph Bateman

Despite increasing regional debate in Latin America on drug policy reforms, Brazil is at risk of sliding backwards and is poised to enact even harsher, rights-violating drug policies. On Wednesday, May 22, the Brazilian House of Representatives passed a law that alters many significant portions of Brazil’s 2006 drug law. Among the changes are an increase in the minimum mandatory sentence for drug traffickers from five to eight years in prison; mandatory treatment for problematic drug users (with permission from family or authorization from a medical professional); and federal funding for “therapeutic” treatment centers, which are privately run, often religious, treatment facilities. These centers have little oversight and have been criticized for using unscientific methods and lacking proper medical staff. The law is now awaiting vote in the Brazilian Senate, and will likely pass.

Despite being fairly unpopular with members of Congress from the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), the political party of President Dilma Rousseff, it is unlikely that she will veto the law if it is passed by the Senate. The new law simply codifies the direction in which her administration was already heading. Moves to increase federal funding for “therapeutic” treatment centers have received vigorous support from her administration (and members of Congress who own the centers), even though such funding has faced significant opposition from the PT in Congress and social groups that have traditionally supported the PT. In fact, it was with support from the Rousseff administration that members of the PMDB coalition party in the House of Representatives wrote and passed the law, which has widespread support from the conservative and evangelical voter blocks. Many are speculating that this signals that President Rousseff is again reaching out to conservative sectors leading up to the presidential elections in 2014.

While there had indeed been a push over the past several years in Brazil to make changes to the 2006 drug law, these current changes are not in the direction that civil society groups, academics, and health workers in Brazil have been advocating. The 2006 drug law removed prison sentences for possession of drugs for personal use but raised the minimum sentence for drug traffickers from three to five years. Because the law did not clearly specify the amounts for personal use versus trafficking, many people carrying relatively small amounts of drugs have gone to jail since the law was enacted, causing a massive explosion of the prison population in Brazil. Often, it is up to the arresting police officers to make the distinction between trafficker and user, and there is credible evidence that being classified as a drug trafficker is largely dependent on race and social class rather than the quantity of drugs in possession or the existence of evidence that there was any intent to sell. Because of the problems associated with this aspect of the law, there have been many calls to clearly define users versus traffickers. However, the new law does nothing to address this problem. Instead, it further increases the minimum sentence for drug trafficking from five to eight years, which will likely exacerbate the overcrowding of prisons even further as many non-violent offenders carrying small amounts of drugs continue to flood the prison system.

Another problematic aspect of the law is the expansion of federal funding for forced treatment for drug users. Some Brazilian states, most notably Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, have already experimented with compulsory treatment of drug users, and many analysts, including WOLA, have noted serious problems with using this approach to curb drug use. Besides being signaled as an ineffective way to reduce problematic drug use because of high rates of recidivism, forced treatment has also been labeled a form of torture by several UN agencies that released a joint statement on the practice last year.  More recently,  in March 2013, Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, argued that forcing drug users into treatment programs against their will, often using unscientific methods of treatment, constitutes a form of torture. Despite international condemnations of the practice and calls from Brazilian civil society to end forced treatment, its use has increased steadily over the past few years with funding from the federal campaign against crack: Crack, É Possível Vencer (Crack, It Can Be Overcome). Unfortunately, with the new law, the practice will likely expand even more.

The proposed law represents a serious setback to Brazil’s efforts to deal with the very real problem of crack abuse in the country. The changes in the drug law appear to be more of an attempt to get drug users off the streets and out of sight, whether in prisons or treatment centers, than an attempt to really deal with the issue using scientific research. Rather than passing this potentially harmful law, the Brazilian Congress should instead engage in a serious debate on drug sentencing policies and evidence-based treatment options.