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Brazil’s Fight Against Constitutional Amendment to Criminalise Drug Use

In October 2023, a few months after the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court had resumed a hearing on the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use, a group of conservative senators led by Efraim Filho filed a proposal for a constitutional amendment. PEC 45/2023 aims to criminalise the possession of any amount of drugs, thus curbing the momentum for progressive drug reform in Brazil. The proposal was approved by the Senate’s Commission on Constitution, Justice, and Citizenship on 13 March this year, and was expected to be discussed during five Senate sessions before going to vote. However, during the fourth session, senators approved an urgent request for a thematic debate on the PEC, postponing the voting session to a later time – expected at the end of April.

Today, on the 15th of April, senators will attend a session to hear opinions from specialists. Doctors Drauzio Varella, Ronaldo Laranjeira (a notoriously anti-drug supporter of therapeutic communities) Antonio Geraldo da Silva, Sérgio Paula Ramos and Valentim Gentil will be invited to the thematic session; advisor Ubiracir Lima, from the Federal Chemistry Council; professors Andrea Gallassi (University of Brasilia) and Marcelo Leonardo (Federal University of Minas Gerais); Silvia Souza, from the Order of Attorneys of Brazil; Jan Jarab, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; doctor José Hiran Gallo, president of the Federal Council of Medicine; and congressman Osmar Terra, one of former president Jair Bolsonaro’s closest allies, and a big supporter of the pathologisation and criminalisation of drug use. A protest of the 


Civil society organisations that have united to oppose the constitutional amendment. Source: Usuário Não é Criminoso


A group of Brazilian civil society organisations and activists are coordinating public and political attention against this measure. “PEC 45/2023 goes against what the world is adopting in terms of drug policies, particularly those following harm reduction, social support, community integration and respecting human rights,” states their open statement which was shared with TalkingDrugs. 

“International studies demonstrate that the criminalisation of drugs doesn’t lead to a reduction in consumption and tends to increase violence,” the statement said.

There is not much hope in this call for evidence, however, once most of the senators will certainly follow a cynical calculation of the possible political outcomes of their stances. Others, of course, will act out of “crystalline ignorance” about the pile of evidence on the harms of drug prohibition and criminalisation of people who use drugs. If the PEC is approved in the Senate (three-fifths of the eighty-one senators must vote yes), it will follow to the Chamber of Deputies for a final vote, where the same mathematics will guide the votes. It must also be voted favourably by three-fifths of the 513 federal deputies. Congress, which has the responsibility of defending the individual rights enshrined in the fifth article of the 1988 constitution, is at its most conservative and reactionary state since the country became a democracy. 

The occasional observer of the politics of drug policy making in Brazil could believe that we are witnessing the closing of a policy window that was half-opened in 2006 when the possession of drugs for personal use was de jure decriminalised. When we look at the de facto level, however, the lack of a clear threshold to differentiate users from suppliers has facilitated the mass incarceration of people whose skin colour, social class, and postal code make them undesirables. A policy window for a more progressive, humane drug policy was never opened in Brazil.


Slow shift into drug policy repression

What we are actually witnessing in Brazil at the moment is a veiled continuation of a reactionary approach to drug policy and legislation that gained momentum during former president Bolsonaro’s tenure. Current president Lula, with his politically calculated support for religious therapeutic communities, has meant Brazil is the only Latin American state to finance such institutions; the state’s continued militarised approach to combatting drug supply is doing nothing but keeping the progressive policy window shut, instead of mobilising his political capital to push for significant reform. This is despite Lula’s signalling that civil society would have a voice in the future of drug policy in Brazil upon his election.

“PEC would reinforce the structural racism in the country as it will impact Brazilians in a disparate manner. More people will be arrested, we will have more stigmatisation and worse conditions to take care of the health of people who use drugs,” said Fran Silva, national coordinator of National Network of Anti-Prohibitionist Feminists (RENFA). Activists believe that this effort for more criminalisation would impact those already over-policed and surveilled by military and state authorities.

By refraining from taking a bold, progressive leadership stance in the shaping and implementation of drug policy, Lula risks letting Congress place Brazil at the forefront of repression. In a nation with so much potential for revolutionising the way we approach drugs, Brazil should be pushing for drug policy reform shaped by the experiences of the Global South. This includes supporting Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro’s bold call to move away from prohibition and militarisation to an approach that places social, economic, and environmental justice as central tenets of drug policy. Instead, the PEC may send us sprinting in the wrong direction.

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