It is imperative that Brazil supports the current debate on drug policy that regional governments are proposing to take to the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, on 14 and 15 April. This is the central message of a statement issued by the Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy, CBDD, formed by 26 representatives from various sectors of Brazilian civil society.
“It would be of great importance that Brazil supported the opening of the debate on new drug policies and participated in it. We have a tradition of implementing bold public heath policies, as with Harm Reduction in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and we have started the most promising policy for combating organized crime, with the combination UPP + BOPE”, CBDD said in the statement.
In recent months, the presidents of Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico have been publicly declaring their interest in recognizing the inefficiency of the current way of dealing with the drug problem and in opening the debate on new alternatives. The president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez, even proposed the legalization of illicit substances as a way to stem the flood of violence that has spread through Central America from Mexico.
In its communication to the public, CBDD stressed the importance of implementing a new drug policy based on the respect for human rights and the investment in public health as a way to reduce the power of drug trafficking, decrease drug consumption and minimize the harm that drugs cause to individuals and societies.
To Paulo Gadelha, chair of CBDD and of Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), Brazil’s participation in the international debate is essential for two reasons: “First, by putting in a regional scenario, Brazil also reaffirms its view of the problem internally, which can help the debate progress at the national level. On the other hand, it is useful to reinforce alliances at the regional level since any change in the issue has implications on the international circuit (for example, before the UN conventions) and it requires a build up of positions in the region based on the principle of solidarity “.
On the proposal of legalization, Gadelha said it is important to respect each country’s social perceptions and levels of tolerance in dealing with the issue. “It should not be an issue that is above the country’s ability to deal with it.”
Decriminalization of users
The CBDD chairman does vehemently defend the decriminalization of drug users. “Currently, we have a criminalizing and repressive view that starts with the idea that drug users should be blamed for the health demand they generate. The result of this is the lack of heath care and assistance services to these users, and the stigma they carry before the society, which ultimately isolate them from the public health system”.
Gadelha, physician and master of Social Medicine, cited as a good example of change in this field the campaign on Harm Reduction that Brazil implemented in the 80’s to contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “In years dominated by prejudices about the virus, Brazil was able to leave aside the taboos and focused on the scientific evidence to provide health services that people needed, as well as implement strategies to prevent the expansion of the epidemic. I’m talking about measures such as the syringes provision for injecting drug users, among others”.
According to Gadelha, drug abuse problems should no longer be addressed under the influence of prejudice, but through the lens of science, and society should offer a hand to those users who have problems with such substances.
In the opinion of another member of CBDD, Colonel Jorge da Silva, former Chief of Staff of Rio de Janeiro State Military Police (PMERJ), Brazil should support the opening of the regional debate on the current drug policy. Based on his experience as a police officer who had to implement a repressive policy against drugs, da Silva is convinced that this is not an efficient way.
“The Brazilian government needs to play a greater role in international discussions on the issue. The current model, the radicalization of repression, has produced the disastrous effects already known. We just need to count the dead. The starting point is to make the drug user a beneficiary of health services, not the object of police actions”, Jorge da Silva said.
The colonel highlighted that the country is already taking important steps to change the issue. “Brazil has advanced in the discussion on the drug matter. Since the current Drug Law of 2006 passed, drug use is not punished with arrest anymore. Also, marijuana cultivation was admitted for personal consumption. Moreover, civil society is getting mobilized, as occurs with CBDD itself. We meet periodically in order to discuss ways of raise society’s awareness about the irrationality of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and to propose more efficient measures to the government”.
The United States agreed to discuss the issue during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, according to declarations the secretary of State, Mike Hammer, gave to the press. In addition, the presidents of Colombia and the United States have an appointment for after the Summit, where the drug trade will be a central theme.
And to finish giving a boost on the subject, a voice of encouragement came from Britain. A group of 75 Members of Parliement wrote to the presidents of several Latin American countries to express their “strong support” for opening a debate on the decriminalization of drugs as an alternative to fight against violence, this weekend, in Guatemala.
Beyond this letter, they sent congratulations to the Guatemalan president for his courage to propose the thorny issue of drug legalization. The text is signed by the 75 members of the group.
Full text of the Declaration:
THE DRUG POLICY DEBATE AND THE SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS
Breaking the taboo and opening the debate
Anti-drug policies around the world follow a repressive and prohibitive model based in the eradication of production, the interdiction of drug trafficking and the criminalization of drug use.
Imposed by the United States 40 years ago, the ‘war on drugs’ has failed on all levels. It was inefficient in reducing the production and consumption of drugs. Even worse, it was counterproductive as it generated disastrous collateral effects such as an increase in violence levels and a growth in corruption associated with drug trafficking and its repression.
The glaring failure of the drug war and the need for more efficient and humane alternative policies inspired the creation in 2008 of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, chaired by former Latin-American presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo. In its report released in 2009, the Commission proposed to open a public debate with the aim of replacing the repressive paradigm for a more comprehensive approach that combines fighting drug trafficking with investment in treatment, prevention and social reintegration of drug users.
The Latin American Commission was extended into national and international initiatives such as the Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
The main idea advocated by these independent commissions is to treat drugs as a public health issue. It makes no sense to stigmatize and punish people who use drugs and do not cause harm to others. Drug addicts should be treated as patients by the health system, not as criminals. The goal is to reduce consumption and harms caused by drugs through treatment, prevention and regulation, like the anti-smoking policies have done.
Several countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico have adopted laws that do not punish with imprisonment drug possession for personal consumption. In many cases, however, the distinction between possession and trafficking is unclear, which leaves room for discrimination against the poor and corruption of law enforcement agents.
Advance in the changing process in the region
Because of the inflexibility and authoritarianism of the American Government’s position, the debate over alternative drug policies has been blocked for decades. In recent months, however, and given the dramatic situation experienced by Mexico and due to the courage of political leaders in the region to recognize the failure of the war on drugs, the debate over alternative policies stepped up unexpectedly.
Since Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010 as President of Colombia, he moved away from the aggressive policy followed by Álvaro Uribe and made several statements in favor of a ‘rethinking the global war on drugs’. In November 2011, in London, Santos went further on: “The world needs new approaches… Today we continue to think the same way we did 40 years ago. A new approach should aim to eliminate the violent profits generated by drug trafficking. If that means legalizing, and the world thinks this is the solution, I am in favor of it “.
Even the cautious Mexican President, Felipe Calderón said: “If drug consumption is not contained in consumer countries, we will be obligated to seek solutions – including market alternatives – in order to reduce the astronomical profits of criminal organizations”.
In February 2012, the President of Guatemala Pérez Molina went even further, taking a clear position in favor of legalizing drugs and seeking the support of Central American countries to discuss the issue. President Laura Chinchilla, from Costa Rica, endorsed the declaration of Pérez Molina, and President Mauricio Funes, from El Salvador, supported the opening of the debate.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, Patricia Espinosa, said Mexico is willing to participate in a debate on drug legalization, although this is not enough to solve the problem of drug trafficking and organized crime in the country.
Last week, presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Evo Morales confirmed their willingness to promote the discussion on new solutions at the Summit of the Americas. President Morales, from Bolivia, is an advocate for the withdrawing of coca leaf from the list of illegal substances prohibited by the Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which puts him on a collision course with the United States, who do not accept any change in conventions.
These positions taken by political leaders of many different wings have been supported by a strong civil society mobilization. In Mexico, for example, initiatives such as México Unido contra la Delincuencia and Diga Sí al Debate, encouraged by businesspeople, social scientists and health professionals, have influenced the public debate on new drug policies.
Perspectives for the Summit of the Americas
A critical mass of important Latin American countries seems determined to include the drug issue on the agenda of the Summit of the Americas. The basic point is the recognition that repressive approaches do not work and that their human, economic and social costs are unsustainable.
Since the subject is complex, it is not expected that it can be solved by simple and immediate solutions. The key is the opening of a qualified debate with the best available scientific information so that each country can form their opinion and move towards the adoption of policies suitable to its own history and culture.
There is much to learn from the experience of European countries in the area of health and harm reduction. There are also important lessons to be drawn from the experiences of Latin American countries in the area of public security and peace policies.
Thus, it would be of utmost importance that Brazil supported the opening of the debate on new drug policies and participated in it. We have a tradition of implementing bold public heath policies, as with Harm Reduction in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and we have started the most promising policy for combating organized crime, with the combination UPP + BOPE.
A new drug policy based on respect for human rights and investment in public health is the way to reduce the power of drug trafficking, decrease drug consumption and minimize the harm that drugs cause to individuals and societies.
Rio de Janeiro, April 20th, 2012
Secretariat of the Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy (CBDD)