Brazil Harm Reduction Faces an Uphill Battle, Even If Bolsonaro Is Ousted

October 13, 2022

Many people, myself included, were sure that President Jair Bolsonaro’s misrule would end in Brazil’s first round of elections, held on October 2. Polls had Workers’ Party opponent and former president Lula da Silva consistently well ahead, and just about on course to exceed the 50 percent of the vote required to take the presidency without the need for a runoff. Bolsonaro was shown running 14 points behind “Lula,” but the polls had significantly underestimated the far-right president’s support. It was a shock to nearly all when Bolsonaro won 43 percent to Lula’s 48 percent—taking them both to a second round of elections set for October 30.

As we brace for the outcome, we must also reckon with the fact that that a president who openly promotes state violence against people who use drugs has not been rejected by the public, and that harm reduction in Brazil faces an uphill battle no matter who prevails.

The Congress we are seeing take shape is unlike anything we had prepared for.

Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party gained the most seats in both chambers of Congress. Out of 513 seats, only 124 will be occupied by left-leaning lawmakers. As the “Bullets, Bible and Beef” caucus gains power, the Congress we are seeing take shape is unlike anything we had prepared for.

We must now prepare for increased funding to law enforcement, which will be used to increase state violence in favelas and against people who use drugs and harm reduction workers.

We can expect attempts to undermine or silence efforts related to human rights, affirmative action, climate justice and reparations for historical state crimes. 

And it’s not unlikely that the bill to legalize medical cannabis cannabis and industrial hemp will remain stalled. Even if sent forward to the Senate, it will face a Congress now dominated by Bolsonaro’s allies. As he’s made it clear he is against the regulation of cannabis, and favors prohibition of all drugs, they would not vote against his interests.

The federal budget for 2023 allocates almost five times more funds for the Ministry of Defense than for the Ministries of Health, Education and Infrastructure. This comes as no surprise, since Bolsonaro has appointed more reserve and active-duty military personnel to strategic civilian posts than any other president since Brazil resumed democratic elections in 1989. He has roughly tripled the number of military personnel occupying public office, compared to the previous administration.

Since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, he has overseen civilian massacres and expressed his approval for the police forces that carried them out. Should Tarcisio de Freitas, Bolsonaro’s former minister of infrastructure, prevail over Fernando Haddad in São Paulo’s guberatorial race on October 30, police harassment of harm reduction workers in the country’s largest municipality will likely increase.

On October 31, the ideology that people who use drugs should be targets for state violence will be alive and well. We must treat this a wake-up call.

Lula’s drug policy favors demilitarizing police enforcement and gives a nod to harm reduction, but keeps the emphasis on taking down “trafficking” organizations and increasing government surveillance.

In 2006, Lula signed a decriminalization law that in fact gave law enforcement even more power to criminalize people for selling drugs, and was soon mobilized by the state as a weapon of mass incarceration. Bolsonaro, of course, drove that criminalization even further by writing in additional penalties as soon as he took office.

On October 31, the political ideology that people who use drugs should be targets for state violence will be alive and well no matter the election outcome. We must treat this a wake-up call, and call to radicalization.

As the saying goes, “A luta continua!”



Photograph via joelfotos/Pixabay

Felipe Neis Araujo

Felipe is a Brazilian anthropologist. He's a criminology lecturer at the University of Manchester, where he researches drug policy, state violence, structural racism and reparations for historical inequalities. He lives in London.

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