Brazil's Lula Backslides on Drug Reform, Grants Military Continued Control Over Anti-Drug Agency 8/1/03

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The Brazilian government announced Monday that the Brazilian anti-drug office, known as SENAD for its Portuguese acronym, will continue to be headed by a general and will remain part of the national security cabinet. The announcement runs contrary to the official position of President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's Workers' Party (PT) and Lula's own campaign pronouncements. It also further unveils a deep divide in the Lula administration between those, such as Minister of Justice Marcio Tomas Bastos and Minister of Health Humberto Costa, who argued for placing a harm reductionist in the post and moving SENAD leadership to the justice ministry, and advocates of a more doctrinaire approach to drug policy based on the US model.

During last year's presidential campaign, the PT called for SENAD, which is charged with prevention of drug abuse, to be placed under the justice ministry. The federal police force would be in charge of drug law enforcement. The campaign rhetoric was supposed to augur a shift in Brazilian drug policy toward a more tolerant, European-style approach, but that is now in question.

"This was a very bad decision," said Fabio Mesquite, head of the AIDS prevention program for Sao Paulo state and one of Brazil's leading harm reductionists. "It is a sort of accommodation with the military," he told DRCNet. "This is a very conservative position and it is not in line with the PT's program or Lula's position during the campaign. Instead, just like former President Cardoso, whose drug policy was very much based on US drug policy, he chose the military."


Fernando Gabeira

Deputy (congressman) Fernando Paulo Nagle Gabeira, a strong advocate of legalization, agreed. "I will criticize this decision in a speech in congress today," he told DRCNet Wednesday. "We had been expecting some change and hoping for a more progressive position, but the president has decided to keep a military man as head of drug policy. We would prefer to see the problem addressed in another context," he said. "This is a very conservative decision by Lula. Previous governments had copied the American point of view. First they decided to create a secretariat against drugs, but you can't be against an object! Then they decided to have a general lead it, and now Lula is doing the same."

Harm reductionists and drug reformers aren't the only ones criticizing Lula's decision. The Folha do Sao Paulo, the largest newspaper in the largest city in the largest country in Latin America, blasted the move in a Wednesday editorial. Referring to other moves the left-leaning Lula has made toward the center since his election, the Folha accused him of "making one more decision contrary to what his party promised before it took power."

Minister of Justice Marcio Tomas Bastos and Minister of Health Costa have both spoken out strongly in favor of a new approach to drug policy, but they were rebuffed by Lula. "The president felt free to take the decision," General Jorge Armando Felix, head of the national security council, told the Folha. "We judged that SENAD was working fine, and the president's decision was to keep it where it is," he said.

"There is a real debate within Lula's government about this," said Mesquite. "Tuesday the health minister issued a national invitation for a debate about caring for drug users. Also, there was a meeting in Brazilia Tuesday of 60 experts from all over the country, and the position of most of them supports anti-prohibitionism."

"It is indeed clear that there is a split in the government," concurred Gabeira. "Minister of Justice Soares is progressive on this issue and so is Minister of Health Costa. They want a more European-style approach. And the health ministry favors the decriminalization bill in the congress."

But despite support from the two ministries, the fate of the bill is in doubt. The official government position, presented by SENAD, is against decriminalization of drug possession. "The decriminalization bill is in congress, as is a bill that would allow safe injection sites," said Mesquite, "but because the government does not support those bills it will be difficult to pass them."

While some see the baleful influence of the US behind the decision, pointing to Lula's June trip to Washington, Gabeira dismissed that claim. "I don't think it was direct pressure from the US," he said. "Lula would not accept that. I think you need to look to the history of the left in Brazil -- it has always been conservative in all areas that don't deal with class struggle, like gay rights or drugs. The conservative faction won the first battle, but trying to criminalize and repress drugs is no way out."

Still, no one is calling it quits. "I think the drug policy can be changed," said Deputy Gabeira. "We are just beginning a national movement led by the Brazilian Harm Reduction Network to say that a new drug policy is possible. We are also trying to create movement inside the government to review this decision. They are not so comfortable with the response they are getting, especially with the condemnation from Folha. That is not just a liberal newspaper. We are now beginning to make the reaction."

"There is a strong, albeit minority, tendency within the congress that favors decriminalization," said Mesquite. "With some pressure from civil society, we may still be able to get these bills passed."

And Lula is finding that his honeymoon with drug reformers is over. "Lula is paying a price for this," said Deputy Gabeira. "He is losing the support of people who have historically supported him on this matter."

Visit to read Deputy Gabeira's Wednesday speech (Portuguese).

[Ed: Last Friday the newly-forming Brazilian anti-prohibitionist organization, Psicotropicus, held its General Assembly, a public and formal step in the legal launching of the organization. DRCNet will be collaborating with, and reporting on, Psicotropicus over the coming months.]

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Issue #298, 8/1/03 Kansas City Drug Fighting Tax Encounters Organized Opposition | Prison Population Increase Accelerates, Up 2.6% Last Year | Brazil's Lula Backslides on Drug Reform, Grants Military Continued Control Over Anti-Drug Agency | This Week in History | Newsbrief: Mozambique, Swazi Farmers Find Dagga Crop Lucrative, But Have to Adjust to Market Trends | Newsbrief: Brazil Bans Viagra Ads | Newsbrief: British Young People Using More Hard Drugs, Health Department Says | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Another Pain Doctor Charged With Murder | Newsbrief: Florida Ex-Cons to Get Voting Rights | Mini Briefs: Illinois Syringe Deregulation, James Geddes Released | Web Scan: OPN, HRC, Cultural Baggage, | The Reformer's Calendar

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