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Brazil’s politicians can’t ignore drug reform forever

The war on drugs is not working for every day Brazilians. Antonio Lacerda/EPA

Brazil has a serious drug problem. The country lies beside the largest coca plantations in the world in Peru and Colombia. A sizeable part of the cocaine used in Europe moves through its vast territory. Murder and incarceration rates are very high and much of this is to do with the illicit drug market. The size of its population and the recent process of economic awakening have transformed Brazil into a huge market for illicit drug consumption itself.

Other countries in Latin America face the same problems, and are bringing in new proposals to tackle them. For instance, Uruguay has legalized recreational marijuana and the courts of Argentina and Colombia have decided in favor of decriminalizing drug possession for personal use.

Considering all this, and taking into account that former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has recently been advocating for drug policy reform, you might think that the main candidates for election on October 5 – one of them, Aécio Neves, from Cardoso’s centre-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) – would bring newer perspectives into the political arena.

Sitting president Dilma Rousseff’s centre-left Workers’ Party (PT) is in a position to make commitments to other essential social policies and minority rights that are directly connected to poverty. This includes the illicit drug problem, since those incarcerated for drug trafficking are mostly poor and, in many cases, users who had ineffective access to legal assistance.

But this year’s presidential election has not been based on new ideas. None of the leading candidates, including Rousseff have decided to tackle any taboos in order to guarantee the support citizens of what polls show to be a rather conservative country. So, despite all the media attention and public demands, topics such as the right to abortion (which is still illegal in Brazil) and alternative drug policies are not being mentioned in Rousseff’s campaign.

The same thing applies to the other two leading candidates, Marina Silva from the Brazilian Socialist Party and Neves. Silva and Neves avoid touching on those topics or simply present conservative views, with an eye on the evangelical Brazilians who account for around a quarter of the population.

The other candidates from left wing parties – all of whom are polling at less than 1% – have firm positions on changing Brazilian drug laws and regulating the illicit drug market.

On the other side of the spectrum of candidates with tiny electorates, right-wingers such as evangelical priest Pastor Everaldo have stressed strong opposition to any liberalization of drug laws and supported even stronger repression of drug trafficking.

For now, alternatives to traditional and inefficient drug policies are not going to gain further attention from the leading candidates. But it’s also worth noting the upsurge in public attention towards drug law reforms, together with an increase in civil society activism, which may lead to changes in the Brazilian parliament.

At the parliamentary level, a considerable number of candidates who propose drug policy reform have real chances of being elected. One of these examples is gay and civil rights activist Jean Wyllys, who is also campaigning for the regulation of medical and recreational marijuana.

So, despite the wariness of the three main presidential candidates, the next term of government in Brazil will be an open space for debating drug policy. The executive branch probably won’t support major changes to drug laws, but the Brazilian public is learning more about harm reduction, alternatives to incarceration and the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs.

Brazil’s next elected president will be confronted with drug law issues and will have to make serious choices about them. The country is moving beyond the point where combating extreme poverty may be enough to win an election. Very soon, there will be no chance of ignoring this subject anymore.

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