In Brazil, Hopes of Decriminalization Fade as Lula Embraces Drug War

November 29, 2023

On November 27, Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appointed Flavio Dino to Brazil’s Supreme Court. In filling the seat with yet another white man, Lula ignored activists calling attention to the fact that no Black women have ever been appointed in the history of the court, and only one of the current 11 justices is a woman. In June, Lula filled another vacant seat with Cristiano Zanin, a white man who also used to be Lula’s personal defense lawyer. Both Dino and Zanin are against decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, which the court is currently discussing.

In August, Zanin stood alone on the Supreme Court as the only justice who opposed decriminalizing cannabis. After Lula was elected in 2022, Dino claimed that Brazil did “not have the social and institutional conditions to decriminalize drugs,” and that “certainly, this will not happen in the coming years.”

Also on November 27, Lula appointed conservative reactionary Paulo Gonet to be the next attorney general. Confirmation hearings for both Gonet and Dino are set for December 13.

Lula spent his campaign dodging questions about drug policy. But as he touted his leftist image, many hoped he’d take steps to rectify the country’s mass incarceration crisis, which grew from the poorly executed decriminalization law Lula himself signed in 2006. Instead, he has spent his first year in office embracing the drug war.

Lula has actively escalated Brazil’s drug war by investing in the notoriously abusive therapeutic communities.

Many of his administration’s failures are through inaction. Brazil’s medical cannabis bill, for instance, continues to languish with Chamber of Deputies President Artur Lira, from whose desk it has not budged since June 2021. One of the ways Lula has actively escalated the drug war, however, is through investment in the notoriously abusive therapeutic communities.

Predecessor Jair Bolsonaro’s amendment to Lula’s 2006 law brought involuntary commitment of people who use drugs to the forefront of Brazil’s drug war. Rather than addressing the law once inaugurated, Lula immediately extended significant government resources to the evangelical lobbyists who run the therapeutic communities, by establishing the “Therapeutic Community Support Department.”

After criticism from social justice advocates, the name was changed to “Department for Organizations Acting on Drugs and Alcohol Support.” Removing the explicit reference to therapeutic communities is a meaningless gesture—Lula’s administration has since moved to expand them, with little transparency as to how or why.

A November survey conducted online in Brazil found that 42.7 percent of respondents approve of the current federal administration, while 45.1 percent disapprove—the first month in which disapproval took the lead. However, the same survey found that public opinion of Lula himself is still mostly positive, and has been holding steady. With a dearth of comprehensive drug education and limited access to harm reduction services, Brazil’s drug war remains a popular one.



Image courtesy of joaolima/Openclipart/Creative Commons 1.0

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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