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Ilona Szabo Headshot

Where Is Brazil in the Global Drug Debate?

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The opening months of 2012 have witnessed an unprecedented debate across Latin America on alternatives to the so-called war on drugs. The sitting presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama are actively exploring decriminalization, regulation and harm reduction as a means of ending spiraling violence associated with drug trafficking. What was once considered to be heresy is now going mainstream.

And while the debate has its detractors, it is definitely catching on. This weekend, 34 heads of state will gather at the sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. For the first time since the war on drugs was launched more than four decades ago, leaders will discuss more humane approaches to dealing with the causes and symptoms of the illegal drug trade. Many privately recognize that the war has failed: the production and consumption of drugs continues unabated and efforts to control illicit markets have instead resulted in a surge in violence.

Every president in the western hemisphere acknowledges that the costs of the war on drugs have been devastating. With just 9 percent of the world's population, Latin America exhibits more than 30 percent of its annual homicides. It is hardly surprising, then, that governments are starting to rethink their approaches to controlling drugs. This is especially so since the "war" on drugs has resulted in more avoidable deaths and higher social costs than their consumption. The costs of waging the war has also drained public coffers and exposed democratic institutions to unparalleled corruption and organized crime.

Particularly given the devastating implications of this failed war on Brazil's society and democratic institutions, the government's silence is deafening. Brazil experiences the highest absolute number of homicides on the planet. For example, in 2010, roughly one Brazilian citizen was assassinated every 10 minutes. According to the country's own Ministry of Justice, more than 49,900 people were violently killed that year and more than two-thirds executed with firearms.

Unlike some other countries in Latin America, Brazil does not have a system to track deaths due specifically to drug violence and organized crime. Even so, the available data gives some insights into the scale of the problem. In 1980, before the arrival of cocaine, the homicide rate was 11.7 per 100,000. By 2010, the rate had more than doubled to 26.2 per 100,000. In just 30 years, and in the wake of repressive policies of containment and control, more than 1,000,000 Brazilians lost their lives in a war without end.

Brazil is not alone in confronting the epidemic of drug violence. Mexico has experienced a massive spike in homicidal violence since President Calderon launched a U.S.-backed campaign against drug cartels. Since 2006, roughly 50,000 to 60,000 men, women and children have been brutally assassinated. And while the human toll is horrific, Mexico's figures pale in comparison to Brazil. And yet curiously Mexico dominates the media cycle like no other country, another sad testament to a misconceived war.

The notable absence of Brazil from the international debate on drug policy is at odds with its reputation as an emerging global leader. Moreover, its refusal to engage with more progressive approaches to managing drugs reveals a jarring dissonance with its own domestic realities. This is because Brazil is not only experiencing an epidemic of violence generated by militarized approach to controlling drugs, but it is also witnessing a surge in the consumption of all manner of drugs, and transshipment to consuming nations in Western Europe and beyond.

And there are ominous signs that the situation in Brazil could worsen. For example, a major federal-level public security program known as PRONASCI, which funded states' improvements and innovations in the security field, experienced sharp budget cut-backs under the new government that came into power last year. This volta face is occurring despite the positive dividends generated on the ground, including the so-called pacification police (UPP) in Rio de Janeiro. In a worrying sign, the new government has also suspended the national plan for the reduction of homicides in 2011 and there are no obvious replacements in sight.

If genuine security and safety dividends are to be achieved in Brazil, the government needs to make some pragmatic choices in relation to national drug policy. For example, law 11.343, passed in 2006 -- which, in theory, exempts drug consumers from prison and thus separates users from traffickers -- needs to be detailed and enforced. But so long as drug consumption is still dealt by the criminal justice, and consumers are publicly vilified as criminals, there is little chance that the law will get much purchase. At a minimum, Brazilian lawmakers need to break the taboo around drugs and initiate an informed debate about alternatives to the status quo.

From a public health perspective, it is critical that Brazil and its neighbors offer support to users with chemical dependencies, including for those abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. But without changes to the existing laws and ensuring opportunities for improved treatment, for example, Brazil's recently launched Plan to Combat Crack and Other Drugs will not succeed. Scandalously, even today, Brazil does not have a public or therapeutic system to support drug dependents.

More positively, Brazil has shown an impressive level of innovation in the public health and security sectors. Its programs to treat HIV-AIDS and reduce smoking are widely considered world class. Likewise, its community justice interventions and community policing activities are being closely monitored and copied across Latin America. It is inevitable that Brazil will eventually develop more humane approaches to drug policy as it contends with its worst social crisis in decades. But it will also take courage on the part of Brazil's leadership to imagine an alternative. It is also critical that the proposed cure is not worse than the illness.

Brazil faces a real and present danger from which it can not and must not hide. At the upcoming Summit of the Americas, President Dilma has an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to building a new architecture for global drug policy. She can make a decisive break with the past. A new approach would emphasize public health, social justice and cultures of peace rather than repression, enforcement and war. If Brazil is to consolidate its international legitimacy and position as promoter of human rights, it needs to adopt more humane policies back home.