Despite global progress, the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana for adult use in Brazil is still far off on the horizon. Even medical marijuana access continues to be embattled—Brazil recently suspended the pharmaceutical authorization of Abrace, one of the few legal routes for obtaining medical marijuana within the country.
To give Brazilians a more complete, accurate picture of marijuana use, clinical therapists Maria de Lourdes Zemel and Luciana Saddi compiled the newly published anthology Maconha: Os Diversos Aspectos, da História ao Uso (Marijuana: The Diverse Aspects, From History to Use). The collection of articles spans topics including history, addiction, legalization battles and spiritual and ritualistic functions. It also debunks the false claim that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs.
“There is the idea that you can have a world without drugs, with everyone clean, pure. And this generates violence.”
The writers aim to provide the public with a more accurate characterization of marijuana use than how it’s portrayed in the media. “Everything comes through the media,” Zemel said. “And [that’s always] fantasy, horror, promoting the War on Drugs.”
I spoke with Zemel and Saddi about the injustices facing people who use marijuana in Brazil, including forced hospitalization, religious internment centers and indiscriminate criminal penalties. Our interview has been translated from Portuguese, and edited for length and clarity.
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia: How is marijuana decriminalization, legalization and medical use viewed in Brazil?
Maria de Lourdes Zemel: What is publicized here is that marijuana is the “gateway to all drugs.” This is of political interest, because there is a movement to hospitalize or arrest young marijuana users, to terrorize them by saying that they are small-time dealers and that they would lead other young people to use other “harder” drugs. So, this is something that we try to demystify—showing marijuana is a psychoactive drug, but it is not a gateway.
There are many groups interested in keeping things as they are. It is difficult to discuss the liberation even of medical marijuana; there is considerable resistance. There are political movements of medical associations against the prescription of medical cannabis.
Luciana Saddi: Not only doctors, but also evangelical leaders. Conservatives in general.
Zemel: It is difficult to think about the decriminalization of marijuana. First, we have to think about debating the legalization of medical cannabis—which we are achieving now—within the medical associations, to be able to discuss this with some freedom. Then we can discuss in the legal areas the question of recreational marijuana and the possibility of alternative sentences to not imprison so many young Black and Brown people for marijuana use.
Saddi: People don’t recognize that alcohol is also a drug. People don’t understand that [other] primates also use drugs. All higher primates look for drugs in the forest and get intoxicated. Also, there is no culture without drugs. All cultures have a use, ritualistic [or otherwise], for drugs.
There is [an abstinence-based] view about drugs, that if we take away drugs the world will be clean and perfect. There is the idea that you can have a world without alcohol, without marijuana, without drugs, with everyone clean, pure. And this generates violence.
What have the consequences of the drug war been in Brazil?
Zemel: Our jails are full of young Black and Brown people caught with small amounts of marijuana. There are no light penalties for the use. Each and every person [charged with] possession of any amount can be accused of trafficking.
Saddi: The incarceration of this population doubled in the past few years; the largest incarcerated population in Brazil is of users and [lower-level sellers]. Sixty-two percent of the female prison population is involved with drug [charges], and youth are more than 50 percent of those incarcerated because of drugs. This policy of criminalization of drugs is also a policy of mass incarceration.
What has the current government done to decriminalize marijuana?
Zemel: Absolutely nothing. There were many difficulties in discussing marijuana in previous governments, but there used to be the National Secretariat for Drug Policy (SENAD) under the umbrella of the Ministry of Justice. Today it has been emptied. Everything was dismantled.
The majority of the councilors, the people who make the municipal drug policy, are religious and know nothing about drugs. And there’s no possibility to work along with the federal government, in any sphere [to change current policies].
Saddi: We don’t see in the near future the decriminalization of marijuana [or] a serious debate about drugs. Brazil is not a country that does prevention on anything—eating disorders, drug use, etc. We don’t even have a prevention program for high blood pressure. The governor of Colorado was against legalizing marijuana in his state, but then he [realized] that crime in the state had gone down since legalization. And he was sorry that he didn’t do it sooner, that he was prejudiced, and he didn’t know that it would be so good for Colorado.
Zemel: The process in Brazil is long and complicated. It is a huge country and initiatives need to start locally. With the current government, it is impossible.
How does the current administration differ from previous ones?
Zemel: One of the things we know now that doesn’t work as the treatment is forced hospitalization. There [had been] a strengthening of Psychosocial Care Centers for Alcohol and Drugs (CAPS-AD). In these centers people get humane treatment for drug dependency. Now [with far-right president Jair Bolsonaro], all government money was taken from the CAPS and given to Therapeutic Communities—religious internment centers with a minimum internment of nine months, because apparently that’s how long it takes to be born.
Saddi: You will be reborn, be baptized and be born again for God.
Zemel: It is brainwashing. All the money, and it’s a lot of money, put into these Therapeutic Communities, no matter how much we show that it doesn’t work. The SENAD, [which allocates] money confiscated from drug trafficking to fund harm reduction services and to finance the CAPS, all the movement that we made in taking money from drug trafficking to use in prevention and treatment, all this money went to the Therapeutic Communities.
Saddi: The problem is indiscriminate mass hospitalization. You don’t offer a treatment that one patient needs, but the same treatment for all people, even for those who are not sick and use recreationally.
Zemel: And families come to believe it. Any drug can be used in a recreational and [unproblematic] way. But the person will use it inappropriately according to the moment that he has an encounter with this drug, and it serves to fill an internal void. Our focus in the book is not on the drug, but that people are able to make the choice to put the drug in or take it out of their lives according to their wishes. It is not up to the therapist to define this.