Pubdate: Fri, 01 Aug 2003
Source: The Week Online with DRCNet (US Web)
Author: Phillip S. Smith, Editor
Bookmark: (Brazil)


Grants Military Continued Control Over Anti-Drug Agency

The Brazilian government announced Monday that the Brazilian anti-drug
office, known as SENAD for its Portuguese acronym, will continue to be
headed by a general and will remain part of the national security
cabinet. The announcement runs contrary to the official position of
President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's Workers' Party (PT) and Lula's
own campaign pronouncements. It also further unveils a deep divide in
the Lula administration between those, such as Minister of Justice
Marcio Tomas Bastos and Minister of Health Humberto Costa, who argued
for placing a harm reductionist in the post and moving SENAD
leadership to the justice ministry, and advocates of a more
doctrinaire approach to drug policy based on the US model.

During last year's presidential campaign, the PT called for SENAD,
which is charged with prevention of drug abuse, to be placed under the
justice ministry. The federal police force would be in charge of drug
law enforcement. The campaign rhetoric was supposed to augur a shift
in Brazilian drug policy toward a more tolerant, European-style
approach, but that is now in question.

"This was a very bad decision," said Fabio Mesquite, head of the AIDS
prevention program for Sao Paulo state and one of Brazil's leading
harm reductionists. "It is a sort of accommodation with the military,"
he told DRCNet. "This is a very conservative position and it is not in
line with the PT's program or Lula's position during the campaign.
Instead, just like former President Cardoso, whose drug policy was
very much based on US drug policy, he chose the military."

Deputy (congressman) Fernando Paulo Nagle Gabeira, a strong advocate
of legalization, agreed. "I will criticize this decision in a speech
in congress today," he told DRCNet Wednesday. "We had been expecting
some change and hoping for a more progressive position, but the
president has decided to keep a military man as head of drug policy.
We would prefer to see the problem addressed in another context," he
said. "This is a very conservative decision by Lula. Previous
governments had copied the American point of view. First they decided
to create a secretariat against drugs, but you can't be against an
object! Then they decided to have a general lead it, and now Lula is
doing the same."

Harm reductionists and drug reformers aren't the only ones criticizing
Lula's decision. The Folha do Sao Paulo, the largest newspaper in the
largest city in the largest country in Latin America, blasted the move
in a Wednesday editorial. Referring to other moves the left-leaning
Lula has made toward the center since his election, the Folha accused
him of "making one more decision contrary to what his party promised
before it took power."

Minister of Justice Marcio Tomas Bastos and Minister of Health Costa
have both spoken out strongly in favor of a new approach to drug
policy, but they were rebuffed by Lula. "The president felt free to
take the decision," General Jorge Armando Felix, head of the national
security council, told the Folha. "We judged that SENAD was working
fine, and the president's decision was to keep it where it is," he

"There is a real debate within Lula's government about this," said
Mesquite. "Tuesday the health minister issued a national invitation
for a debate about caring for drug users. Also, there was a meeting in
Brazilia Tuesday of 60 experts from all over the country, and the
position of most of them supports anti-prohibitionism."

"It is indeed clear that there is a split in the government,"
concurred Gabeira. "Minister of Justice Soares is progressive on this
issue and so is Minister of Health Costa. They want a more
European-style approach. And the health ministry favors the
decriminalization bill in the congress."

But despite support from the two ministries, the fate of the bill is
in doubt. The official government position, presented by SENAD, is
against decriminalization of drug possession. "The decriminalization
bill is in congress, as is a bill that would allow safe injection
sites," said Mesquite, "but because the government does not support
those bills it will be difficult to pass them."

While some see the baleful influence of the US behind the decision,
pointing to Lula's June trip to Washington, Gabeira dismissed that
claim. "I don't think it was direct pressure from the US," he said.
"Lula would not accept that. I think you need to look to the history
of the left in Brazil -- it has always been conservative in all areas
that don't deal with class struggle, like gay rights or drugs. The
conservative faction won the first battle, but trying to criminalize
and repress drugs is no way out."

Still, no one is calling it quits. "I think the drug policy can be
changed," said Deputy Gabeira. "We are just beginning a national
movement led by the Brazilian Harm Reduction Network to say that a new
drug policy is possible. We are also trying to create movement inside
the government to review this decision. They are not so comfortable
with the response they are getting, especially with the condemnation
from Folha. That is not just a liberal newspaper. We are now beginning
to make the reaction."

"There is a strong, albeit minority, tendency within the congress that
favors decriminalization," said Mesquite. "With some pressure from
civil society, we may still be able to get these bills passed."

And Lula is finding that his honeymoon with drug reformers is over.
"Lula is paying a price for this," said Deputy Gabeira. "He is losing
the support of people who have historically supported him on this matter."

Visit to read Deputy Gabeira's Wednesday
speech (Portuguese).

[Ed: Last Friday the newly-forming Brazilian anti-prohibitionist
organization, Psicotropicus, held its General Assembly, a public and formal
step in the legal launching of the organization. DRCNet will be
collaborating with, and reporting on, Psicotropicus over the coming months.]
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