A few days after voting against the rescheduling of cannabis at the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in December 2020, the Brazilian government released a primer on the alleged risks posed by cannabis use. Based on biased sources and filled with inaccuracies, misinformation, and stereotypes, the document states that there is no such a thing as medical cannabis. The document links cannabis use and trafficking to violence and criminality, but there is not a single word on the state violence entaild by a drug policy that legitimates police operations in favelas and poor communities—operations that have become crusades against Black and Brown people, claiming the lives of children and keeping their relatives behind bars.
Unlike some of its neighbouring countries, the Brazilian government has continued to block efforts to decriminalise cannabis. In 2017, when Argentina legalized medical cannabis, the right-wing Brazilian president Michel Temer censored the publication of a study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) which questioned the very existence of a drug addiction epidemic; the government was accused of suppressing data that would call its war on drugs into question.
The current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to invest in the war on drugs since he began campaigning for the presidency in 2018, a vow he renewed upon election. In 2019, during his first year in office, Bolsonaro signed a decree establishing his own kind of drug policy. The new piece of legislation excludes previously adopted harm reduction approaches, relying on the enforcement of coercive abstinence. In practice, this channels taxpayers’ money into abstinence-only institutions and removes support for people who use drugs.
The Brazilian government also altered the composition of the National Drug Policy Council, excluding civil society representatives; 13 seats were removed, including those held by the Order of Attorneys of Brazil; the Federal Council of Social Work; the Federal Council of Medicine; the Federal Council of Nursing; the Federal Council of Psychology; the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science; and the National Student Union. The seats previously occupied by an anthropologist, a journalist, and an artist were also extinct.
Following the decree, Bolsonaro sanctioned a new drug law to toughen penalties for suppliers and allow for the involuntary, forced commitment of people who use drugs into treatment. The measure was cheered and supported by representatives and senators involved in the rehab industry, which, in Brazil, are strongly linked to Christian organisations; In 2019 alone the Ministry of Citizenship channelled 70% of its funds into rehabilitation programmes run by evangelical and catholic institutions, some of them owned by conservative members of the congress.
War on Drugs Right, Left, and Centre
But the extreme right is by no means solely responsible for the necropolitics of drugs in Brazil. Former progressive governments have paved the way for the escalation of policing, militarisation, and violence related to drug policies and their enforcement. According to Human Rights Watch, the drug law signed in 2006 by then president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a founding member of the left-wing Workers Party, had a serious impact on the dramatic increase in the prison population that followed. The 2006 law substituted the previous one, sanctioned back in 1976 during heavy years of military dictatorship, which established penalties of incarceration and fines for possession.
The 2006 law did introduce a distinction between users and suppliers based on the possession of small or large amounts of drugs, but the text did not define precise amounts or thresholds, thus leaving room for biased enforcement. When changes are made to drug legislation that rely on the discretion of law enforcement officers, bias should generally be expected. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.
“This law is a blank cheque for the police to arrest vulnerable people and to frame the poor, the slum dwellers, and Black people as drug dealers and not as users,” says criminal solicitor Joel Luiz Costa, born and raised in the Favela do Jacarezinho, Rio de Janeiro. “In a racist and divided country like ours, where people are judged by their postcode, this type of criterion would not be a mechanism of justice. [… A] black kid, without formal work, in a ghetto neighbourhood at night, in a place said to be controlled by a certain faction, will necessarily be framed as a drug dealer regardless of the amount (of drugs) he has."
In 2005, 9% of the Brazilian prison population was serving a term for drug possession. In 2014, this number increased to 28%. According to the latest National Survey of Penitentiary Information, published June 2020, 32% of incarcerated people in Brazil— 232,000 people—were serving time for drug-related offences, an increase of 23% since the passing of the 2006 drug law. Among the population of women in prison, over 18,000, or 57%, are serving sentences on drug charges. 214,000 men in prison, or 31% of the male prison population, are serving time on drug charges. There is no data available for the number of Black people incarcerated for drug offences, but 66% of the Brazilian prison population is formed by Black and Brown people.
Bolsonaro and his cabinet are openly committed to the escalation of the war on drugs, to an increased militarisation of the police forces, and to forced abstinence in place of harm reduction. This ideology, coupled with more repressive drug policies, laws, and enforcement is likely to pave the way for an increase in extrajudicial punishment and incarceration, which are already epidemic 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.