On August 4, seven former ministers of health who served under presidents Lula, Dilma Roussef and Jair Bolsonaro published a letter on the website of the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (ABRASCO, in Portuguese) calling for the end of the involuntary commitment of children and adolescents who use drugs to therapeutic communities. As TalkingDrugs previously reported, Bolsonaro’s 2019 drug law re-established the practice of involuntary commitment of adults. In the following year, the National Council of Drug Policy (CONAD, in Portuguese), an agency of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, issued Resolution 3/2020, which authorised and regulated the commitment of children as young as 12 years old.
Most therapeutic communities are faith-based institutions, belong to evangelical pastors or Christian churches, receive federal funding and promote abstinence as the only goal of their so-called treatments for people who use drugs. Despite several denounces of physical and psychological abuses inside therapeutic communities, Bolsonaro’s government has expanded the funding of these institutions. Earlier this year, the United Nations Development Programme in Brazil has also partnered with the Brazilian federal government to develop and legitimise the offer of religious and spiritual treatment for people committed to compulsory treatment—even if compulsory commitment, physical and psychological abuses are clear violations of human rights.
The letter signed by the former ministers comes right after federal judge Joana Carolina Lins Pereira’s issued a preliminary injunction suspending the effects of the 2020 resolution that authorised the commitment of children and teenagers. On July 11, judge Pereira ruled that the CONAD, author of resolution 3/2020, does not have authority to determine national policies that concern children’s and adolescents’ rights, and underscored that designing and implementing such policies is a prerogative of the National Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CONANDA, in Portuguese). In her decision, she asserted that “confining adolescents in therapeutic communities is a distortion of the state's duty to care for and protect its children and adolescents, ensuring that they grow up in dignified conditions conducive to their development, close to their families, with the right to education, safety and care in a inclusive, public network.”
The decision complied with the request made in the context of a public civil action filed by the federal public defender and by the public defenders of the states of Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Mato Grosso and Paraná. Judge Pereira’s decision also determines the suspension of all federal funding destined to commit and keep children and adolescents in therapeutic communities, and the release of the circa 500 minors currently committed to these institutions within 90 days—with the exception of those sentenced by a judicial decision.
Even though this is a temporary measure that waits for a final ruling, actors dedicated to the protection of children’s rights celebrated the ruling. Luiz Brandão, public defender of the state of Mato Grosso and coordinator of the Strategic Action Group for the Collective Rights of the Homeless Population, considers it a great victory for homeless children. “In these [therapeutic] communities it is common to occur violations of human rights,” he told Olhar Jurídico. He also said that the current policy “represents the weakening of the [Universal Health System] SUS, as the money that could be used to strengthen the Psychosocial Care Network ends up being used to finance these therapeutic communities that defend a model we know that does not work.”
Judge Pereira’s ruling adds to a growing wave of opposition to Bolsonaro’s cabinet draconian drug policies—from judges ruling that the criminalisation of possession for personal use is unconstitutional to lawmakers pushing for the regulation of medical cannabis—and adds momentum to the fight against drug policy-related mass incarceration in Brazil.
*Felipe Neis Araujo is a Brazilian anthropologist concerned with drug policies, state violence, structural racism, and repair for historical inequalities. He writes a monthly article for TalkingDrugs. Contact him at email@example.com.