The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could drug decriminalization save Brazil’s slums?

Brazilian troops patrol a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro. (CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazil has been struggling with drug violence for years. The problem got so bad that the country passed a law in 2006 to distinguish between dealers and users in handing out sentences, meant to reduce the overwhelming pressure on the justice and jail systems and to better single out dealers. But since then, the number of Brazilians in prison for drug charges has more than doubled and its total prison population has grown by 37 percent, according to official statistics.

Now, a prominent Brazilian think tank called the Igrapé Institute has released a surprising list of policy proposals to address the problem. The think tank had organized a special committee called Pense Livre ("think free" in Portuguese) to rethink the country's drug policy. Its four-point plan, translated by the folks at Riorealblog and flagged today by GlobalVoices, starts with drug decriminalization:

• Decriminalize all drugs and invest in a public health approach to drug use
• For cannabis, regulate medicinal use and home cultivation for personal use
• Invest in programs for youth at risk, and offer alternative sentencing for non-violent first offenders
• Make medical and scientific research possible, for all drugs.

The report doesn't seem to argue that these policies would reduce drug use, which is high in Brazil. Rather, it argues that they would reduce violence related to drug use, as well as the need for expensive and burdensome incarceration and policing, which have helped to marginalize poor and minority communities, particularly in the city's infamous slums.

These policies might find a number of supporters in Brazil, where large numbers march every year on "Marcha da Maconha" to call for marijuana decriminalization. Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs an international group that lobbies for drug liberalization that held a conference in Poland today, called for governments to "experiment with different models of legal regulation of drugs, such as marijuana, similar to what we already have with tobacco and alcohol."

The public policy of drug decriminalization is hotly debated around much of the world. Portugal's experience may have resonated in Brazil, as the two countries share a common language and history. In 2001, Portuguese leaders decriminalized drugs in a desperate attempt to curb skyrocketing drug use and related crimes. And it seems to have been effective. The New Yorker's Michael Specter explored the policy's effects in-depth last year. The article is behind a pay wall, but here's a relevant excerpt from the summary:

In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen. Surprisingly, political opposition has been tepid and there has never been a concerted repeal effort. Yet there is much to debate about the Portuguese approach to drug addiction. Does it help people to quit, or does it transform them into more docile drug addicts, wards of an indulgent state, with little genuine incentive to alter their behavior? By removing the fear of prosecution, does the government actually encourage addicts to seek treatment? Unfortunately, nothing about substance abuse is simple.