As Continental Harm Reduction Movement Hits Bump, Brazil House Passes Drug Possession Depenalization Bill 2/20/04

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Update: Fabio Mesquita Exonerated by Sao Paulo Health Secretariat

The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies approved last Thursday a bill that removes the possibility of arrest or prison sentences for people charged with drug possession. Earlier in week, a meeting of the Latin American Harm Reduction Network (RELARD in its Spanish acronym) in Sao Paulo dissolved in acrimony amid allegations of corruption surrounding one of the group's most prominent members and charges of dirty doings during voting to choose new leadership.

But while Latin American harm reductionists were recovering from the bout of infighting, the Brazilian lower chamber was making history. If enacted by the Brazilian Senate, which has already passed one version of the bill, drug users would be subject to community service, but not jail, for drug possession offenses.

"This does not decriminalize drug use, but it's an important step in confronting a social hypocrisy because it says there will be no more prison for drug use," Deputy Paulo Pimenta of the ruling Workers' Party told the Folha de Sao Paulo. The bill also sets penalties for drug trafficking offenses and allows for asset forfeiture, said Pimenta, who played a key role in authoring the measure. "Dependence is one thing," he explained. "Repression and the battle against trafficking is something completely different."

While Luiz Paulo Guanabara, director of the Brazilian anti-prohibitionist group Psicotropicus criticized the bill for not going far enough, he lauded it as a step in the right direction. "This bill is a very good thing because it helps mobilize public opinion and is a first step toward a more just and rational drug policy," Guanabara told DRCNet. "In addition to not sending people to jail, there is no forced treatment -- judges can recommend treatment, but this bill does not oblige people to follow that recommendation," he said. "This is a step toward future legalization."

Instead of forced treatment, the bill requires that drug users be given free treatment on demand. It is also an indication that the government of President Lula da Silva is moving on its promises of drug reform. "This bill comes out of the ministries of justice and health and the national drug directorate," said Guanabara. "Those three groups put out the bill."

Under the bill, people charged with drug possession will be ordered to do community service or perform educational activities for a period of up to five months for a first offense, 10 months for subsequent offenses. Although drug users cannot be jailed for avoiding drug treatment, they would face jail time if they failed to comply with the judge's orders.

The bill would also modernize Brazil's drug control apparatus, creating a National Drug Policy System (SISNAD) consisting of all federal, state, and local entities involved in any aspect of drug control, from prevention and education to repression of the drug traffic. The education, health and justice ministries would maintain control of their areas of expertise beneath the SISNAD umbrella. Additionally, the bill would create a repository for information on all aspects of drug use, traffic, and control, the Brazilian Drug Information Observatory (OBID).

The bill would also allow the cultivation of crops containing psychoactive substances for religious purposes, emphasize harm reduction as a guiding principle, and provide incentives for private entities to hire drug users.

While the Brazilian congress was busy pushing reform legislation forward, the Latin American Harm Reduction Network (RELARD) was imploding at its Sao Paulo annual conference. Rocked by widely-publicized allegations of corruption and nepotism against Brazil's most prominent harm reductionist, Sao Paulo AIDS prevention head Fabio Mesquita -- he is on leave from his Sao Paulo post as a complaint is being investigated -- the conference was thrown into deeper chaos by a bitterly fought leadership contest between allies of Mesquita (the Simon Bolivar list) and others who sought a new direction (the Latin American Unity or LULA list).

According to members of the defeated LULA list, the process was doomed both by the lack of financial support for getting representatives of various national organizations to the conference, which led to an under-representation of groups from outside Brazil, and by procedural irregularities in the voting itself. But the conflict also reflected deeper differences within the movement, said Silvia Inchaurraga, who ran on the LULA list.

"What we want is a truly Latin American network, not a Brazilian one," Inchaurraga told DRCNet. "The Simon Bolivar list is not representative of all Latin America, nor are all of its people even related to harm reduction. Also, we want a network that is actually involved in drug policy reform, not just hiding behind HIV prevention. We want an antiprohibitionist network independent of official agencies. Even if those agencies are friendly, we need the autonomy in decision-making that the network has not had up until now. And we are afraid of the harms we see from the most dangerous and addictive drug: power."

In a message circulated on the RELARD list and signed by Eliane Guerra Nunes of the LULA list, Gustavo Hurtado and Agustin Lapetina of the stillborn Consensus list, and Silvia Inchaurraga of the RELARD executive secretariat, the signers denounced the election as unfair and demanded that it be nullified. The election was supposed to be by secret ballot, the letter said, but Fabio Mesquita, who presided over the voting, instead called for a show of hands. The voting needed to be secret, the letter said, because "many of the potential participants could feel pressured to vote for someone other than who they wanted because of contractual links with the members of both lists." The open voting in violation of agreed upon rules, "nullifies the vote and gravely wounds the principle of free choice," the signatories maintained.

Neither was there any control over who could vote in the election, the letter said. Such uncontrolled voting "gravely wounds the principle of legitimacy and representativeness," the letter continued. What's worse, the letter continued, the assembly had already voted to accept a temporary leadership composed of members of both lists (the Consensus List) and the decision to hold another vote "did not respect the decision of the assembly to form a consensus list for the transition leadership." And worse yet, the letter's lengthy litany continued, were irregularities in awarding authority to the president of the assembly and that "some of the members of the Simón Bolívar List are family members of the presidential candidate Sandra Batista and have no background
in the field of harm reduction."

Taken together, the letter said, the missteps mentioned above constitute "a grave and substantial violation of electoral norms, procedural errors, and manifest arbitrariness" sufficient for the results to be nullified. The new RELARD leadership is "illegal and illegitimate" and new elections should be held to replace it, the letter concluded.

"It needs to be emphasized that up until the moment of the assembly we sought a unity list that would strengthen RELARD, said Gustavo Hurtado of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association (ARDA). "In the negotiations in which Fabio Mesquita and I took part, the proposal was that RELARD be led by a Brazilian with broad support of an executive representative of Latin American harm reduction and that in no way would we would support any maneuver at the assembly in Sao Paulo when there was no financial support to ensure that representatives of the networks in all the member countries could be there, and the ones who could come paid their own way," he told DRCNet.

"For us, this is an opportunity that we must not ignore to strengthen RELARD at a time when we are seeing advances in drug reform in Latin America. It is a shame that the ambition for power and the inability to co-direct of some people linked to Fabio Mesquita made it impossible to arrive at an accord," Hurtado continued. "It is unacceptable for us to allow a group of people who are not representative of the harm reduction movement to lead RELARD. We think that the least harm comes from denouncing and nullifying the election, otherwise we would be accomplices in the installation of spurious leadership in an institution that must guarantee transparency in its political practices."

Others have since joined the call for nullification and new elections, including individuals and groups from Argentine, Bolivia, Brazil, and Uruguay. But newly elected RELARD head Sandra Batista rejected the charges of electoral irregularities and the call for nullifying the election. "No, there were no problems at all, as can be confirmed by fully signed procedural documents open to anyone," she told DRCNet. Nor did she confirm that there are fissures in the organization. "We have no information at all about any kind of actual dispute at RELARD," she maintained.

Late Thursday, Batista added that "I do not believe that we have some divisions in the movement. We received a letter from four members who participated fully at the general assembly, complaining about the election process. This was the same assembly they participated in with proposals and votes. This letter was answered and we are waiting for the next step of clarification."

[Editor's Note: In fairness to Batista, Mesquita, and the Simon Bolivar list, we must note that because of deadline pressures, we could offer only a very short time for them to respond to the substantive charges leveled against them, and we had not heard further from them by press time late Thursday night.]

Batista also denied that there was any chance of RELARD breaking apart. "Why should RELARD break up now, when we have so many challenges ahead?" she asked.

But from the sound of it, RELARD's first challenge is to fix its own house.

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Issue #325, 2/20/04 Editorial: Long in the Making | ACLU, Drug Reform Groups Sue over Federal Ban on Public Transit Drug Reform Ads | Utah Asset Forfeiture Reform Law Under Attack | As Continental Harm Reduction Movement Hits Bump, Brazil House Passes Drug Possession Depenalization Bill | Oakland "Regulate and Tax" Marijuana Legalization Initiative Getting Underway -- Poll Says Public Support Strong | Action Alert: HEA Campaign Entering New Stage -- Your Letters and Phone Calls Needed! | Newsbrief: DEA Moving to Restrict Vicodin | Newsbrief: Canadian Government Reintroduces Marijuana Decriminalization Bill | Newsbrief: Methadone Maintenance Doctors Under Attack in Britain | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Drug War First -- Florida Town Offers Used Car Drug Inspections | This Week in History | Psilocybin Cancer Research Study Seeking Participants | Asian Harm Reduction Network Launches Online Resource Collection | Offer and Appeal: New StoptheDrugWar.org Ink Stamps and Strobe Lights -- DRCNet Needs Your Support in 2004 | The Reformer's Calendar
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