On February 10, 2017, a Brazilian Supreme Court justice called for the legalization of marijuana and cocaine in Brazil to emasculate the increasingly powerful drug gangs behind a wave of violence that has swept the largest Latin American country.
Yale graduate and constitutional law professor Justice Roberto Barroso said that Brazil’s 50-year drug war has failed and that, as a result, the country’s jails are overflowing with small-time dealers and drug gangs that are violently battling for control over the lucrative trade. Rather than shelling out billions of dollars to fight the illegal cannabis market, Barroso said it was necessary to “legalize marijuana now.”
The drug war has failed miserably in the United States as well, but the impact of the illegal drug trade affects the U.S. and Brazil differently. Barroso explained:
“Unlike the United States and Europe where the problem lies in the impact drugs have on consumers, in Brazil the problem lies in the power drug traffickers have over poor communities.”
Brazil is an intensely conservative country, but fears have been increasing about the violence breaking out in its overcrowded jails and city slums. On New Year’s Day, in the jungle city of Manaus, inmates from one drug gang decapitated dozens of rivals, triggering jail riots across the country.
In early February, a crime wave struck Brazil’s southeastern state of Espirito Santo when police there went on strike. More than 120 people were killed, many of them linked to criminal gangs.
Barroso believes that going the direction of its neighbor, Uruguay – regulating the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana – would help curb violence in Brazil, which is known for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world. He said:
“If that works we can easily move to legalize cocaine. If you want to break the power of traffickers you need to consider legalizing cocaine.”
Eleven justices sit on Brazil’s Supreme Court bench, and Barroso is one of three who recently voted in favor of decriminalizing marijuana in a case that he hopes will help clear the path to legalization. Barroso and the two other justices face an uphill battle, however, as more of the country’s conservative and evangelical politicians have vowed to dig in their heels and take a tougher stance on drugs.
But the drug war in Brazil has only resulted in more strife for the country. The prison population has surged 55% due to the 2006 approval of a law that gives judges discretion to determine who is a a drug consumer and who is a dealer. One in every four of the country’s male inmates was convicted for drug trafficking. Said Barroso:
“I’m not sure if my proposal for legalization will work, but I’m sure that the war on drugs has not. We cannot just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.”