Brazil Promises “Evidence-Based” Drug Policy, a Term That’s Lost All Meaning

    In March, at Session 66 of the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the delegation from Brazil vowed to take a human-rights approach to drug policy. National Secretary for Drug Policy Marta Machado gave a speech in which she emphasized equity for vulnerable populations and stated: “We recognize drug use as a matter of public health and social development and we will work, based on scientific evidence, to improve health systems and social protection.”

    This sounds innocuous enough. But “evidence” has become a meaningless buzzword in the policymaking arena. The term is used constantly, in service of any and all political ideologies, to delay taking action by telling the public we must first gather more empirical data and subject it to lengthy theoretical analysis. It serves political and corporate interests, not the people.

    Workers’ Party President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva campaigned on promises to end Brazil’s drug war. But so far his administration has taken no action toward regulation or decriminalization, nor decarceration even though the country’s current mass incarceration crisis is fueled by policies he himself introduced during his first term nearly 20 years ago.

    Under previous administrations, scientific evidence was censored and twisted while junk “science” was heartily promoted.

    Drug policy reform in Brazil has long been obstructed by claims that we simply do not have enough evidence yet to support it, while simultaneously such evidence is censored.

    In 2017, President Michel Temer’s administration buried a report on the state of drug use in Brazil because it contradicted government propaganda about the crack cocaine epidemic we were supposedly threatened by. The study was conducted by FIOCRUZ, an internationally recognized public health research institution for over 120 years, but no matter.

    Under President Jair Bolsonaro, scientific evidence was increasingly censored or twisted out of context, while junk “science” was heartily promoted. In 2020, his cabinet issued a primer full of false “evidence-based” claims about the dangers of cannabis. It contained so many abhorrent lies that the current administration removed it from its website, but it can still be viewed here. Among other things, it claimed that the evidence shows cannabis is addictive and causes various mental illnesses, and that there is no such thing as medical cannabis, since we just don’t have the evidence to support such a concept.

    A second primer followed in 2021, and a third in 2022, each building on what came before by touting misrepresented or cherry-picked “evidence” that supported prohibition. The third claimed that cannabis use increased risk of suicide.

    Bolsonaro’s minister of citizenship, Congressman Osmar Terra, said on multiple occasions that cannabis causes “mental retardation” and opposed medical cannabis on the grounds that we didn’t have enough scientific evidence to support it. This is the same man who, in 2019, opposed establishing thresholds for drug decriminalization on the grounds that doing so would “demoralize” police officers, who should be trusted to know who was a drug user and who was a drug seller.

    Months after Lula’s inauguration, the rehab industry still receives favor and the medical cannabis bill is still stalled.

    Amid all of this, the administration argued—violently—that regulating medical cannabis production would liberate every other banned substance, and maintained that the evidence showed how dangerous it would be to cultivate cannabis domestically.

    The pharmaceutical industry, which profits immensely from medical cannabis being imported rather than domestically cultivated, had a strong ally in Bolsonaro. The rehab industry, too, benefited from “evidence-based” support for prohibition, in the form of endless government funding and legislation to prop up the notorious practice of involuntary commitment.

    And yet, months after Lula’s inauguration, the rehab industry continues to receive government favor and the legislation to authorize medical cannabis is still stalled

    Under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s UN delegations had aligned with other authoritarian administrations, supporting prohibition and supply reduction, including voting against the UN rescheduling of cannabis in 2020.

    That the new administration is not attempting to mobilize UN resources to implement violent, draconian drug policies is of course preferable. But instead we seem to have an administration that is recycling empty rhetoric about evidence-based policies, while accumulating a debt to civil society with all these promises.



    Photograph via New York State Office of Cannabis Management

    • 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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