DRCNet Interview: Brazilian Antiprohibitionists Luiz Paulo Guanabara of Psicotropicus and Cecilia Szterenfeld of the Integrated Programs on Marginality 7/11/03

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Luiz Paulo Guanabara is the founder of Psicotropicus, the first openly antiprohibitionist organization in Brazil. He has attended this year's international drug reform conferences in Mérida, Mexico, and Cartagena, Colombia, and is playing a key role in organizing a groundbreaking Brazilian conference on drug users' rights set for in September.

Cecilia Szterenfeld is executive-director of the Integrated Programs on Marginality ("Programa Integrado de Marginalidade" in Portuguese, PIM), a set of HIV prevention and human rights projects aimed at sex workers, transvestites and young people involved in prostitution, the families of prison inmates, the gay and lesbian community, and drug users.

DRCNet spoke by phone with Guanabara and Szterenfeld at their shared offices in downtown Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday.

Week Online: Both of you were involved in a series of meetings among human rights, harm reduction and other drug reform groups that led to a Brazilian delegation attending and addressing the recent Global Social Forum Special Thematic Meeting on Democracy, Human Rights, War, and the Drug Traffic in Cartagena, Colombia. Can you tell us about that process and what it says for the state of the movement in Brazil?

Luiz Paulo Guanabara
in Mérida
Luiz Paulo Guanabara: There were several preparatory meetings beginning in February; I didn't really get involved until April, when Psicotropicus helped prepare for the second meeting in Rio de Janeiro. We had Congressman Gabeira, National Public Security Secretary Luis Eduardo Soares, retired Judge Maria Lucia Karam -- who affirms prohibition is unconstitutional -- Cândido Grzybowski, from the World Social Forum. There were many other groups and teachers from several universities involved. That was in May, a few weeks before Cartagena, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Cecilia Szterenfeld: This was the first time the kinds of subjects, especially antiprohibitionism, were discussed within the federal university. It was very helpful to open people's minds and get them thinking differently. Brazilian drug policy is still very dominated by the US stance toward drugs, and we are pushing our government hard to adopt new policies. These meetings were important not only as organizing tools for Cartagena, and for our September users' rights conference in Rio, but also as a means of raising the federal government's consciousness about what civil society thinks about this. Here in Brazil we have a very strong tradition of organizations from civil society. Beginning with the time of the military dictatorship in the 1970s, we have seen a very interesting development of civil society around the Catholic Church. There are thousands of small groups in communities across the country. The Catholic Church was one of the few institutions that opened a political space for organizing during the dictatorship. Now there are a myriad of organizations all over the country. In AIDS prevention, for example, the health ministry works with some 600 organizations. This is why AIDS prevention has been so successful here -- because it reaches people where they are and where they are most vulnerable.

WOL: You mentioned the role of the Church. Is the Church in Brazil progressive on these issues?

Cecilia Szterenfeld: In Brazil, you cannot speak of the church as a monolithic institution. This is where liberation theology was born, and it is still strong here. You do have general lines of instruction from the hierarchy, but they are not very tight. Just as whether you have condom distribution within a particular school depends on a number of factors, so it is with the Church. It depends on the nature of the parish and the nature of the priest. Some priests will tell us we can do a workshop on AIDS prevention in the church, but that we cannot distribute condoms. "Do it outside," they say, "I'll look the other way." The Church is very active in harm reduction issues, but they have their limitations when it comes to sex and drugs. Still, they are usually on the people's side. Our bishop, for instance, says that using a condom is a lesser evil.

WOL: Luiz, you represented the Brazilians at the Mama Coca (http://www.mamacoca.org) meeting in Cartagena, on the last day of the forum, where many in attendance signed on to participate in setting up an international commission to pressure the United Nations to amend or repeal the global drug conventions. At the time, it sounded like you were saying the Brazilians would not choose to be part of that effort -- you thought your resources were better spent on the local and regional level. Is that still the case?

Guanabara: There will be a Brazilian participation in the commission. On Tuesday, we had our first post-Cartagena meeting with the Brazilian group -- which also includes Colombian Fernando Patiño who lives in Rio, -- and Jorge Atílio S. Iulianelli and Ana Maria Motta Ribeiro from Koinonia (http://www.koinonia.org.br) will be part of a small Brazilian group that will be part of the commission. For me and for Psicotropicus, while we think it is important to work toward changing the UN conventions and we are willing to be part of that, it is secondary to our primary goal of empowering Latin Americans so we can create some space for a drug policy independent of the US. Brazil cannot just challenge the UN conventions by itself, but if we can get the Latin American countries working together at the regional level, then a change in drug policy towards decriminalization of drug production, sales and using could become a real possibility. It would also help change at the UN.

WOL: This year has seen international conferences in Mérida and Cartagena where reformers from around the hemisphere and beyond came together to work and learn and attempt to forge that hemispheric movement. Are we seeing progress?

Guanabara: One thing both conferences made clear was how prohibitionism is used as a tool for controlling people and restricting civil liberties, not only by the US against other countries, but within individual countries, including the US, where it is used against the poor, those with the wrong skin color, the excluded. I see a real opportunity for forming and strengthening a Latin American antiprohibitionist network. Psicotropicus debuted at Mérida, even before being publicly announced it in Brazil. When I got back home, I found there was no other antiprohibitionist group at work in Brazil. But I also found that there were people in Brazil and beyond who want to be part of this work. The Brazilian Harm Reduction Association (http://www.aborda.org.br -- "Associação Brasileira de Redutores de Danos" in Portuguese) was also thinking about antiprohibitionist issues, and so are groups like DRCNet, the Mordaunt Trust in England, the Transnational Radical Party, Mama Coca, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, ARDA in Argentina, the Drug Policy Alliance and many others. And these groups can provide mutual support for each other. When I came back from Mérida, I found that Psicotropicus had become the catalyst for a lot of antiprohibitionist-minded people. What happened in Cartagena was to some degree a further development of issues brought up in Mérida.

WOL: You are planning a September conference in Rio de Janeiro. What is that about?

Guanabara: It is the First National Seminar on Drug Users' Rights. The main sponsor is ABORDA and funding comes from the Health Ministry. It's interesting to have support from the Brazilian government -- and also partially from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Prevention, through their AIDS program -- to realize such a conference. It's a positive sign that amidst the drug insanity created by prohibition there are many people here trying to fix that. It'll take place September 22-23 in Rio de Janeiro. Former ABORDA president Domiciano Siqueira and I will be coordinating the Latin American forum at the event. We don't know yet who will come from outside Brazil -- I invited everybody at Cartagena -- but it already looks like it will be really big (more than 150 registrations in the first week). We certainly will see people from Argentina and Uruguay, and are working to bring others from Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. We hope North America and Europe will be represented as well. Our problem is that we do not have funding for travel expenses for all these people. Some will be financed by their own groups, but some groups don't have enough money, and neither do most individuals in Latin America. We are also looking for funding for a third day of the conference, a continuation, which would be devoted exclusively to the Latin American forum and the antiprohibitionist movement.

WOL: What are the prospects for progressive changes in drug policy under the government of President "Lula" da Silva?

Guanabara: There is much grumbling among Lula's supporters in the Workers Party in general right now. The bases are not happy. They are disappointed because they feel that while Lula has taken office, he has not taken control. It is like nothing has changed. Lula was going to take us on the path of national liberation, but he hasn't yet started down that path. Still, officials at the Health Ministry, Justice Minister Thomas Bastos, and National Security Secretary Luis Eduardo Soares have all said in recent months that they are in favor of immediate decriminalization of drug use. Also, you have to remember that the harm reduction movement that has emerged in Brazil is unique in a couple of ways. First, there are strong antiprohibitionist tendencies within the Brazilian movement. And second, also unlike the harm reduction movement in the US, harm reduction has emerged as social movement here. Psicotropicus, as an antiprohibitionist organization, has allied itself with the harm reduction movement, and we are working together. And, there is also a strong marijuana legalization movement, though it is very scattered and not yet well-organized. In fact, we just met last week with the organizers of the Rio de Janeiro Million Marijuana March to work on planning next year's, which will be on May Day.

But as the movement for drug reform grows, we are starting to see a reaction. The prosecutors and the people in the recovery industry are starting to attack, and so are people in the judiciary. They want to see their drug courts expanded, and the recovery people want to keep profiting from this misery. They are using techniques that have been discarded even in the US!

Szterenfeld: There is a significant base for reform in the harm reduction movement here, where we already have harm reduction programs in 22 states, and they are community-based. In North America or Europe, where you have harm reduction programs like needle exchanges or safe injection sites, they tend to be professionalized, with doctors and nurses and psychologists. But here it is different. We have users involved as community-based health agents. We have created a network where users have a lot of empowerment, even if they are absorbed within the public health system. The Lula government came to power in January, and by March they had issued a statement saying harm reduction was official public health policy for the entire health ministry. Before that, it had only been the policy of the AIDS coordinator within the health ministry.

And I think there is a chance to move the antiprohibitionist movement ahead. Public sentiment is still against us, of course, and the conference in September will be a good indicator, a first trial balloon for the idea of ending prohibition. In previous governments, we in the harm reduction movement were afraid to lose any of the ground we had struggled so hard to gain, so we were afraid to link harm reduction and an end to prohibition. But in the last six months, that has begun to change as we see an opening from the federal government. People feel more secure, more comfortable talking about it.

Still, I think the Brazilian public, and even people already involved in the social movements, have to be educated on these issues. That is one of the main goals of the September conference. We need people in the social movements to make the link between the US role in globalization, its policies on drug trafficking, and the consequences for the people. We aren't there yet. But we also want to show people who are sympathetic to the antiprohibitionist movement that there are others like them out there. We intend to have psychologists against drug courts, educators against a "just say no" drug education, professionals who are not satisfied with the status quo in drug policy who wouldn't otherwise know about each other.

This is the year of laying the groundwork for a five or ten year struggle. We know we have four years of Lula, where we won't have to worry about being arrested for what we think. He hasn't yet decided in what direction he will move, and our hope is to influence him to try other ways. Our strategy will be not to go against what is officially proposed -- there may be commercial and military agreements that make it difficult for the government to change gears right now. But when Lula is reelected in four years, then we can move on. The ideal situation would be that we convince Lula not to sign the UN convention that will be up in 2006, and perhaps we can get the rest of Latin America to join in and Europe will support us, and then we will be free, no? A number of ministers and politicians here say privately they support decrim and could consider ending prohibition, but tell us they can't say that out loud because Lula hasn't decided. We are in a moment where we can be very influential. Brazil is a huge country with a great cultural diversity, so why not try the Portuguese model and the Amsterdam model or the Swiss model? Let us open up possibilities and monitor what happens and see what works. That would be a refreshing change.

-- END --
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Issue #295, 7/11/03 Editorial: More Than One Kind of Pain | Alaska Court Rules Marijuana Possession Okay -- Judicial Day of Reckoning Coming | Doctors' Group Advises Physicians to Avoid Treating Pain with Opiates, Cites Persecution of Pain Doctors -- Tucson Case Illustrates Point | DRCNet Interview: Brazilian Antiprohibitionists Luiz Paulo Guanabara of Psicotropicus and Cecilia Szterenfeld of the Integrated Programs on Marginality | Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced in Argentina | In Memoriam: Don Topping, Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii | Newsbrief: Feds Appeal Ed Rosenthal Sentence | Newsbrief: Ruling Expected "Soon" in Santa Cruz Medical Marijuana Suit | Ashcroft Seeks Supreme Court Permission to Overturn Free Speech Ruling on Physician-Patient Discussion of Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Oregon Appeals Court Overturns Asset Forfeiture Reform | Newsbrief: Canadian Government to Distribute Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: New DEA Administrator Karen Tandy Approved by Senate Judiciary Committee Following Medical Marijuana Controversy | Newsbrief: Former Scottish High Court Judge Says Legalize It | Newsbrief: British Doctors Don't Say Legalize It | The Reformer's Calendar
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