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Brazil Should Learn From the United States' Drug War Mistakes

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The Brazilian Congress is debating a controversial bill, authored by Rep. Osmar Terra (PMDB-RS), which among other setbacks proposes increasing the minimum penalty required from 5 to 8 years for drug-related crimes. History has shown that this is the wrong way to go -- and for evidence of this, it's instructive to look to the U.S., where draconian "mandatory minimum" sentencing led to an explosion in the country's prison population.

In the 1980s and '90s the U.S. relied on tougher sentencing laws and mandatory sentencing -- which did nothing to reduce drug abuse or drug prohibition-related violence, but contributed significantly to staggering government deficits as prison spending skyrocketed.

I am very concerned about the current proposal in Brazil because I lived in Sao Paulo for several years and my 11-year-old son still lives there. Recently, I appeared in, Breaking the Taboo a film directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade and Sam Branson, which featured former President Fernando Cardoso -- who is also speaking out against this bill.

I know personally that mandatory sentencing does not work and has unintended consequences. In 1985, I made the biggest mistake in my life and got involved in drug activity. For $500 I delivered a package containing four ounces of cocaine to undercover police officers.

At the time I was married with a young daughter and struggling to pay my rent. I was approached by someone I knew from my bowling team. He asked if I wanted to make some easy money. I agreed.

When you get desperate you do stupid things.

I delivered the envelope right into the hands of undercover narcotic officers. I had been set up in a sting operation. I was shocked when I was sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to 15-years-to-life under the mandatory minimum provisions of the drug laws of New York. It was the same sentence given to someone convicted of second-degree murder. The judge did not want to give me such a harsh sentence because it was my first time in trouble with the law, but he had to because of mandatory minimum sentencing.

I served 12 years until I was granted executive clemency by the governor. When I was released, I became an activist and dedicated my life to bringing change to the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

When these laws were created in New York State in 1974, the legislative intent of the laws was to curb the drug epidemic and capture the drug kingpins. But their intent was flawed from its creation, imprisoning instead low-level drug users, many of who were addicts, and not touching the drug problem. Hundreds of thousands of lives were ruined costing New York billions of dollars.

In 1986 the United States Congress enacted similar mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which compelled judges to deliver fixed sentences to people convicted of certain crimes, regardless of mitigating factors or culpability.

Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors: the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture (or alleged weight in conspiracy cases), and the number of prior convictions. Judges are unable to consider other important factors, such as the offender's role, motivation and the likelihood of recidivism.

Today there are about 500,000 Americans locked up because for nothing more than a drug law violation. The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, largely due to misguided drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements. Since the 1980s, drug war practices have led to the conviction and marginalization of millions of Americans -- disproportionately poor people and people of color -- while failing utterly to reduce problematic drug use, drug-related disease transmission or overdose deaths.

However, the U.S. is starting to learn from its failures New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws were repealed in 2009, Congress repealed the first mandatory minimum law in 2010, and in 2012 California voters repealed the state's controversial "three-strikes" law for nonviolent offenders.

Brazil should learn from the mistakes the United States has made in trying to deal with the war on drugs. Instead of adopting a get tough approach which includes increased sentences for drug possession and mandatory confinement for addicts a smarter approach should be made that will invest public resources into educating the public about the use of drugs and provide treatment options to fight addiction.

A version of this piece recently appeared in O Globo Newspaper in Brazil.