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Brazil Minister Claims State ‘Never Waged Drug War’ in Face of Rising Imprisonment for Drug Offences

A Brazilian minister has called for an intensification of the War on Drugs, arguing that harsher punishments will reduce drug use.

Earlier this week, Osmar Terra – who was appointed Minister of Social Development in May 2016 – claimed in a conversation with O Globo that Brazil has “never seriously waged a war on drugs”. He called for increased border control, stricter penalties for drug trafficking, and educational campaigns, to combat the country’s rising drug use.

The Brooking Institute reports that cocaine use in Brazil has "more than doubled since 2005", and attributes this to an increasingly urban and affluent population with disposable income. Terra claimed that decriminalising drug possession would set a dangerous precedent for the eventual legalisation of substances, and that without “some kind of punishment, [people who use drugs] will consume more”.

Terra's rhetoric indicates a marked divergence from recent progressive discourse around drug policy reform in Brazil. In late 2015, members of the Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal – STF) were considering the decriminalisation of drug possession; the case was temporarily suspended, however, due to the high-profile political scandal and upcoming impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff.

Decriminalisation of drug possession is already the norm in several Latin American countries, including Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay.

Brazil has the world's fourth largest prison population, and the total number of incarcerated individuals has "more than doubled over the past decade”, claims the Brooking Institute. A driver of this increase has been a 2006 law, which depenalised personal drug possession and strengthened punishments for trafficking. However, the legislation does not detail the quantities of drugs that are considered to be personal, and allows for considerable judicial discretion when determining whether an individual possesses drugs for consumption or for trafficking purposes. A major increase in the imprisonment of low-level drug offenders has, therefore, occurred.

A report published by the Organisation of American States found that – between 2007 and 2012 – the number of people imprisoned for drug trafficking in Brazil increased by 123 per cent; from 60,000 to 134,000. According to the World Prison Brief, the occupancy level of Brazilian prisons is 157 per cent – indicating an extreme level of overcrowding, while 36 per cent of current inmates are yet to be sentenced.

With the country in political purgatory following Rousseff’s removal from office, it is unlikely that drug law reform will be prioritised by the STF any time soon. Osmar Terra’s comments suggest that Brazil may intensify its implementation of punitive policies, while the STF remains preoccupied with the state’s turmoil.

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