Pubdate: Fri, 20 Feb 2004
Source: Drug War Chronicle (US Web)
Author: Phillip S. Smith, Editor



The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies approved last Thursday a bill that
removes the possibility of arrest or prison sentences for people
charged with drug possession. Earlier in week, a meeting of the Latin
American Harm Reduction Network (RELARD in its Spanish acronym) in Sao
Paulo dissolved in acrimony amid allegations of corruption surrounding
one of the group's most prominent members and charges of dirty doings
during voting to choose new leadership.

But while Latin American harm reductionists were recovering from the
bout of infighting, the Brazilian lower chamber was making history. If
enacted by the Brazilian Senate, which has already passed one version
of the bill, drug users would be subject to community service, but not
jail, for drug possession offenses.

"This does not decriminalize drug use, but it's an important step in
confronting a social hypocrisy because it says there will be no more
prison for drug use," Deputy Paulo Pimenta of the ruling Workers'
Party told the Folha de Sao Paulo. The bill also sets penalties for
drug trafficking offenses and allows for asset forfeiture, said
Pimenta, who played a key role in authoring the measure. "Dependence
is one thing," he explained. "Repression and the battle against
trafficking is something completely different."

While Luiz Paulo Guanabara, director of the Brazilian
anti-prohibitionist group Psicotropicus criticized the bill for not
going far enough, he lauded it as a step in the right direction. "This
bill is a very good thing because it helps mobilize public opinion and
is a first step toward a more just and rational drug policy,"
Guanabara told DRCNet. "In addition to not sending people to jail,
there is no forced treatment -- judges can recommend treatment, but
this bill does not oblige people to follow that recommendation," he
said. "This is a step toward future legalization."

Instead of forced treatment, the bill requires that drug users be
given free treatment on demand. It is also an indication that the
government of President Lula da Silva is moving on its promises of
drug reform. "This bill comes out of the ministries of justice and
health and the national drug directorate," said Guanabara. "Those
three groups put out the bill."

Under the bill, people charged with drug possession will be ordered to
do community service or perform educational activities for a period of
up to five months for a first offense, 10 months for subsequent
offenses. Although drug users cannot be jailed for avoiding drug
treatment, they would face jail time if they failed to comply with the
judge's orders.

The bill would also modernize Brazil's drug control apparatus,
creating a National Drug Policy System (SISNAD) consisting of all
federal, state, and local entities involved in any aspect of drug
control, from prevention and education to repression of the drug
traffic. The education, health and justice ministries would maintain
control of their areas of expertise beneath the SISNAD umbrella.
Additionally, the bill would create a repository for information on
all aspects of drug use, traffic, and control, the Brazilian Drug
Information Observatory (OBID).

The bill would also allow the cultivation of crops containing
psychoactive substances for religious purposes, emphasize harm
reduction as a guiding principle, and provide incentives for private
entities to hire drug users.

While the Brazilian congress was busy pushing reform legislation
forward, the Latin American Harm Reduction Network (RELARD) was
imploding at its Sao Paulo annual conference. Rocked by
widely-publicized allegations of corruption and nepotism against
Brazil's most prominent harm reductionist, Sao Paulo AIDS prevention
head Fabio Mesquita -- he is on leave from his Sao Paulo post as a
complaint is being investigated -- the conference was thrown into
deeper chaos by a bitterly fought leadership contest between allies of
Mesquita (the Simon Bolivar list) and others who sought a new
direction (the Latin American Unity or LULA list).

According to members of the defeated LULA list, the process was doomed
both by the lack of financial support for getting representatives of
various national organizations to the conference, which led to an
under-representation of groups from outside Brazil, and by procedural
irregularities in the voting itself. But the conflict also reflected
deeper differences within the movement, said Silvia Inchaurraga, who
ran on the LULA list.

"What we want is a truly Latin American network, not a Brazilian one,"
Inchaurraga told DRCNet. "The Simon Bolivar list is not representative
of all Latin America, nor are all of its people even related to harm
reduction. Also, we want a network that is actually involved in drug
policy reform, not just hiding behind HIV prevention. We want an
antiprohibitionist network independent of official agencies. Even if
those agencies are friendly, we need the autonomy in decision-making
that the network has not had up until now. And we are afraid of the
harms we see from the most dangerous and addictive drug: power."

In a message circulated on the RELARD list and signed by Eliane Guerra
Nunes of the LULA list, Gustavo Hurtado and Agustin Lapetina of the
stillborn Consensus list, and Silvia Inchaurraga of the RELARD
executive secretariat, the signers denounced the election as unfair
and demanded that it be nullified. The election was supposed to be by
secret ballot, the letter said, but Fabio Mesquita, who presided over
the voting, instead called for a show of hands. The voting needed to
be secret, the letter said, because "many of the potential
participants could feel pressured to vote for someone other than who
they wanted because of contractual links with the members of both
lists." The open voting in violation of agreed upon rules, "nullifies
the vote and gravely wounds the principle of free choice," the
signatories maintained.

Neither was there any control over who could vote in the election, the
letter said. Such uncontrolled voting "gravely wounds the principle of
legitimacy and representativeness," the letter continued. What's
worse, the letter continued, the assembly had already voted to accept
a temporary leadership composed of members of both lists (the
Consensus List) and the decision to hold another vote "did not respect
the decision of the assembly to form a consensus list for the
transition leadership." And worse yet, the letter's lengthy litany
continued, were irregularities in awarding authority to the president
of the assembly and that "some of the members of the Simon Bolivar
List are family members of the presidential candidate Sandra Batista
and have no background in the field of harm reduction."

Taken together, the letter said, the missteps mentioned above
constitute "a grave and substantial violation of electoral norms,
procedural errors, and manifest arbitrariness" sufficient for the
results to be nullified. The new RELARD leadership is "illegal and
illegitimate" and new elections should be held to replace it, the
letter concluded.

"It needs to be emphasized that up until the moment of the assembly we
sought a unity list that would strengthen RELARD, said Gustavo Hurtado
of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association (ARDA). "In the
negotiations in which Fabio Mesquita and I took part, the proposal was
that RELARD be led by a Brazilian with broad support of an executive
representative of Latin American harm reduction and that in no way
would we would support any maneuver at the assembly in Sao Paulo when
there was no financial support to ensure that representatives of the
networks in all the member countries could be there, and the ones who
could come paid their own way," he told DRCNet.

"For us, this is an opportunity that we must not ignore to strengthen
RELARD at a time when we are seeing advances in drug reform in Latin
America. It is a shame that the ambition for power and the inability
to co-direct of some people linked to Fabio Mesquita made it
impossible to arrive at an accord," Hurtado continued. "It is
unacceptable for us to allow a group of people who are not
representative of the harm reduction movement to lead RELARD. We think
that the least harm comes from denouncing and nullifying the election,
otherwise we would be accomplices in the installation of spurious
leadership in an institution that must guarantee transparency in its
political practices."

Others have since joined the call for nullification and new elections,
including individuals and groups from Argentine, Bolivia, Brazil, and
Uruguay. But newly elected RELARD head Sandra Batista rejected the
charges of electoral irregularities and the call for nullifying the
election. "No, there were no problems at all, as can be confirmed by
fully signed procedural documents open to anyone," she told DRCNet.
Nor did she confirm that there are fissures in the organization. "We
have no information at all about any kind of actual dispute at
RELARD," she maintained.

Late Thursday, Batista added that "I do not believe that we have some
divisions in the movement. We received a letter from four members who
participated fully at the general assembly, complaining about the
election process. This was the same assembly they participated in with
proposals and votes. This letter was answered and we are waiting for
the next step of clarification."

[Editor's Note: In fairness to Batista, Mesquita, and the Simon Bolivar
list, we must note that because of deadline pressures, we could offer only
a very short time for them to respond to the substantive charges leveled
against them, and we had not heard further from them by press time late
Thursday night.]

Batista also denied that there was any chance of RELARD breaking
apart. "Why should RELARD break up now, when we have so many
challenges ahead?" she asked.

But from the sound of it, RELARD's first challenge is to fix its own
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake