Mérida Interview: Luiz Paulo Guanabara, Brazil, Executive Director of Psico-Tropicus 2/21/03

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Luiz Paulo Guanabara is the founder and director of Psico-Tropicus, a Brazilian harm reduction and anti-prohibitionist organization. A practicing psychologist, Guanabara is a Brazilian pioneer in integrating the principles of harm reduction with psychotherapy for drug users. For Guanabara, unifying the two disciplines implies being non-judgmental with clients and working with drug users who are not ready to seek abstinence. His career as a harm reductionist began in 1996 in Rio de Janeiro, when he was invited to participate in the city's first needle exchange program. DRCNet spoke with Guanabara in Mérida the evening the conference ended.

Week Online: What is Psico-Tropicus and what does it seek to accomplish?

Luiz Paulo Guanabara: Psico-Tropicus is an independent agency that is anti-prohibitionist and interested in harm reduction. As a matter of policy, Brazilian harm reduction projects are funded by the federal government, mainly because of the AIDS epidemic. Psico-Tropicus has very few funds rights now, but we have a good chance this year of gaining funding from an American foundation. We are also looking for funds from some Brazilian nonprofit organizations. The group is still being formed and is composed already of academics and professionals in the health field, and we will probably have Federal Deputy Fernando Gabeira as our man in Congress.

Our main objective is to participate in the formulation of a new Brazilian drug policy. We want to take harm reduction and anti-prohibitionism into the meetings with government officials and civil society and to draw attention to the huge damage that drug prohibition causes to Brazilian society and the Brazilian people. Psico-Tropicus only came to life because we have a new government that we believe will be more open to new perspectives on drug policy. The violence associated with prohibition is unbearable, and we think the people are tired of all this violence. We will be like an independent agency that will strive to insinuate itself into the fabric of the new Brazilian drug policy that is now being planned.

Psico-Tropicus has five main objectives. First, we call for the total decriminalization of drug users. Second, we want to further develop harm reduction strategies. Third, we call for the immediate legalization of marijuana. Fourth, we want to be an organization to advocate for harm reduction and anti-prohibitionist policies with international groups interested in networking and maybe even opening chapters in Brazil. And last but not least, we call for the total decriminalization of all drugs and the normalization and regulation of drug production and sales.

WOL: What are the drugs of choice in Brazil?

Guanabara: Marijuana use is the norm in Brazil. It is widely used and should be normalized as quickly as possible. It's already part of our culture. I've never had anyone come to me and say he had a marijuana problem, and if they did, I would suspect there was something else underlying it. There are virtually no people seeking treatment for marijuana in Brazil, and the few who are in treatment for marijuana are usually young people sent by their parents or by the stupid drug courts they are trying to establish.

The main problematic drugs in Brazil are alcohol, tobacco and cocaine. You don't see much heroin in Brazil. With cocaine, it was once only used by high society, but nowadays, cocaine is used by all classes, from the richest to the poorest, and it is very cheap. And in Rio, it is only powder cocaine, not crack, because the drug dealers banned crack. They know their employees would go nuts; it would be bad for their business.

I have done research in the favelas (slums), and I found that cocaine use and sales are really wide open. People buy it and do it right on the street, then go drink beer in the favela bars. When it comes to injection drug users, cocaine is 100% of the problem here. We do needle exchange programs, and sometimes we have to give them 20 syringes a day because they are shooting up so frequently.

WOL: You mentioned the drug dealing in the favelas. Can you tell us about the drug gangs, the so-called "parallel power"?

Guanabara: The parallel power controls the favelas. To do anything in the favelas, you have to get their permission. If you want to do a social program, put on a concert, do a tourism tour, you need their authorization. The parallel power -- they also call them "commands" -- developed inside the prisons. In the 1970s, during the military dictatorship, the government threw leftist guerrillas into the same jails as the common criminals. The guerrillas taught the criminals how to organize, and they created the Red Falange. Its leaders were middle-aged men, but the Falange split up into two groups, the Red Command and the Green Command, and the original leaders were killed and replaced by younger, more violent men. These are the men who now control the favelas.

WOL: Where is the Brazilian government?

Guanabara: That's what the people want to know. The government is absent, it doesn't really care about the millions of poor in the favelas. They don't send assistance, they don't do social programs, the only thing they send is the police. They send the police to contain and repress the poor. In that sense, prohibition works as an excuse for the repression of the poor. We have great hopes that this will change with the new government of Lula.

WOL: What other sorts of drug reform efforts are underway in Brazil?

Guanabara: There is a movement to legalize marijuana, but it is only at the beginning. Last year was the first time Brazilians participated in the Million Marijuana Marches, and I was a spokesman for that. We had more than a hundred reporters present, as well as the civil police, who came and photographed everything. There was some fear we would be arrested for our advocacy, but the government of the state, the Workers' Party of Lula, said it was free speech. Congressman Gabeira is really the leader of the marijuana legalization movement in Brazil. He has been advocating legalization for years and years, but now that Lula is in office we hope it will happen within the next few years. I think the Workers' Party will be receptive.

WOL: You've just finished the conference in Mérida, where you helped MC the event. How do you think it went?

Guanabara: I think it was great. I have the feeling that some of the nicest people in the world were there. And we got a lot of work done. We talked to the deputies from the Transnational Radical Party and will arrange for them to meet with Gabeira and other members of the state and federal congresses. We also did a lot of work with our Latin American friends from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, and we are now, as a result of this conference, closer than ever to uniting to stop the drug war and end prohibition in Latin America. There is a common understanding in Latin America that prohibition is tremendously more harmful than drugs could ever be. We especially have much in common with Argentina, because neither country is a coca producer, and we can concentrate on the problems of consumption under prohibition. So our networking with Argentina is more developed than with other Latin American countries right now. But in the future we will also bring up the issues that are important in Bolivia and Peru and the other producing countries. We understand that coca and cocaine are commodities that can bring wealth to the consumer countries instead of destruction, so we favor this commerce. We also have a deep respect for the ancient indigenous traditions of coca use; it is a sacred plant. For us in Brazil, marijuana is also a sacred plant. The prohibition of these plants is a profound manifestation of human ignorance. It cannot stand.

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Issue #275, 2/21/03 Out from the Shadows: First Latin American Anti-Prohibition Summit Convenes in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Mérida Interview: María Mercedes Moreno of Mama Coca | Mérida Interview: Luiz Paulo Guanabara, Brazil, Executive Director of Psico-Tropicus | Rosenthal Verdict Fallout: Angry Jurors, Media Attention, a New Bill in Congress | Victory for Bolivian Coca-Growers Imminent, Reports Say Government Will Allow Coca in the Chapare | Thailand War on Drugs Turns Murderous, 600 Killed This Month -- Human Rights Groups Denounce Death Squads, Executions | Peoria Needle Lady Busted in Pekin, But Charges Later Dropped | Drug Czar's Office Masks TRUE Costs of War on Drugs in Federal Budget | Newsbrief: DEA Kills 14-Year-Old Girl in San Antonio, Claims Self Defense | Newsbrief: US Spooks Killed, Captured in Colombia | Newsbrief: French Cannabis Activist Faces Jail for "Encouraging Drug Use" | Newsbrief: Corrupt Cop of the Week I | Newsbrief: Corrupt Cop of the Week II | Newsbrief: Oklahoma Report Urges Sanity in Sentencing | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar
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