Brazil's Supreme Court Could Rule in Favor of Decriminalizing Drugs

As the drug policy reform debate heats up in the country, Brazil’s Supreme Court is set to discuss decriminalizing the personal possession and use of drugs.

On August 19, the Supreme Court (STF) will begin the debate and aim to rule on whether criminalizing low-level possession and use offenses is unconstitutional, reported Agencia Brasil.

The hearing -- originally due to take place on August 13 -- comes as a result of a filing by São Paulo's Public Defense Office which argues that possession of drugs for personal use should not be a crime because it does not harm third parties.

Pedro Abramovay, director of the Latin America Program at the Open Society Foundations, has called on the Supreme Court to clearly determine what thresholds constitute possession for personal use in order to tackle Brazil's high rates of incarceration. He told Agencia Brasil that, "This is not a minor issue, the lack of definition leads to incarceration. We’re talking about one in three prisoners in the country." 

Speaking recently at an event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazils' justice minister admitted existing problems in differentiating between people who use drugs and drug traffickers, with many people convicted as traffickers despite their offense actually being possession for personal use. This has contributed to situation where Brazil's prison population stood at 61 percent above official capacity last year.

Brazil attempted to address this issue in 2006 with a law that distinguished between use and trafficking and permitted more lenient penalties for personal possession, including fines, educational courses and community sentencing, while increasing penalties for drug traffickers. The aim was to prompt a shift away from criminalizing people who use drugs; however, in practice the law has had the opposite effect.

Without a strict definition of the threshold for personal consumption and with punitive policing and judiciary cultures, more drug possession cases have been dragged into the category of drug trafficking. Between 2007 and 2012 the number of Brazilians incarcerated for drug trafficking offenses leapt 123 percent from 60,000 to 134,000 mostly as a result of first-time offenders sentenced for possession of small quantities of drugs according to research by the Organization of American States.

If the STF were to rule in favor of decriminalization, it could prove momentous for drug policy reform in Latin America given Brazil's role as a regional superpower. In order for such a move to achieve this level of significance, though, it could need the government to begin openly advocating reform, something it has proved reluctant to do. Indeed, a recent advertising campaign highlighting the violence and irrationality of the country’s war on drugs was withdrawn from circulation without explanation after suspected pressure from government authorities.