Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Landmark Case in Brazil to Test Hard-Line 'War on Drugs'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Landmark Case in Brazil to Test Hard-Line 'War on Drugs'

Article excerpt

Brazil's Supreme Court began hearing a landmark drug case this week that could fundamentally change how drug users are viewed and punished.

Conviction as a "user" in Brazil currently leads to a criminal record and increased penalties for any future crime, while conviction as a trafficker leads to a minimum of five years behind bars. Brazil's laws mirror many that flooded the region starting in the 1980s amid a hard-line "war on drugs."

But a focus on total prohibition has resulted in too much arbitrary sentencing and severely overcrowded prisons, many observers say. Poorer Brazilians have also taken a hit from sentencing guidelines that encourage classification of defendants by socioeconomic status, often leaning on things like the neighborhood where they were arrested to determine if they are a user or a trafficker.

If the court votes in this case - an appeal on behalf of a prisoner caught with drugs in his cell - to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use, it could send a message that the strategy has gone too far, and help shift perceptions of drug policy as simply a criminal issue.

"Across Latin America drug policies are a primary factor fueling ... prison population crises," says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who studies drug policy in the region. Nations that have already decriminalized possession for personal use are part of a regional trend toward viewing drug policy as a public health concern, instead of a criminal one.

Approving decriminalization in Brazil "would help move future debate and reforms in that direction," Ms. Youngers says.

When Brazil last amended its drug possession law in 2006, the minimum sentences for trafficking rose from three years to five years. Since then, the prison population more than quadrupled, growing from 31,520 prisoners in 2006 to 138,366 in 2013. The system is more than 200,000 people over capacity.

Brazil's prison population echoes many of those in the region: Some 10 Latin American countries have prison systems that are 200 percent above capacity, including El Salvador, Bolivia, and Peru.

Youngers estimates that about 30 percent of male prisoners in South America are there for drug offenses, as are between 60 to 80 percent of female prisoners.

But death tolls from a drug war that spans the region have also driven discussion about whether current drug policies are working.

A 2013 report by the Organization of American States made waves when it deemed prohibitionist drug policies ineffective and encouraged Latin America and the US to experiment with "nontraditional" approaches. "This could involve legalization, harm reduction, investing more in treatment regimes. The precise formula should vary according to the democratic decisions of each country," the report read. …

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