Drug Decriminalization: Why Both Brazil and the U.S. Should Do It


The Brazilian Supreme Court will begin to review drug decriminalization after seven former justice ministers turned in a petition declaring that criminal penalty for individual drug use is unconstitutional. The petition was turned in to the Supreme Court last Tuesday, and was signed by former justice ministers whose tenures range from 1995 to 2010 — under former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

This petition closely follows many progressive developments in the region. On April 4, Uruguay began formally debating regulation of marijuana production and distribution, which – if passed – would become the first country in the world to do so. Brazil's other neighbor, Argentina, has decriminalized marijuana possession for personal consumption since 2009.

Will Brazil be the next South American country to liberalize their drug policy?

In the petition, the justice ministers criticize the "failed war on drugs," stating "treating a user as a citizen, by offering them structured treatment through harm-reducing policies, is more effective than stigmatizing them as a criminal."

This sounds a lot like former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson's position: he called the War on Drugs an "expensive bust" and asked why "more than 10 million Americans are now 'criminals' for purposes of employment, credit histories, voting, gun ownership and many other opportunities." He notes that the American public is ready to legalize marijuana, and calls on his fellow politicians to take action.

Similar to Johnson, the Brazilian Ministers call on their colleagues to recognize the "incompatibility of constitutionality and the crime of having drugs for personal consumption," calling on issues of "human dignity," "political plurality," and "respect for privacy."

Drug decriminalization could change both of these countries remarkably. The U.S. and Brazil, the No. 1 and No. 2 largest markets in the world for cocaine, respectively, imprison thousands of people annually for drug use – and the number is growing.

Brazil's "prison population rate" – the number of citizens imprisoned for every 100,000 citizens of the country – is 276. Their prisons are inundated; currently at a 172.2% occupancy level. We must refrain from criticism, however, because the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our prison population rate is 716 and growing, and our prisons are at a 106% occupancy level.

Brazil is seeing rising drug consumption and rising incarceration rates. Decriminalization of personal drug use could have positive effects on both public health and public safety, helping drug users to seek treatment without fear of punishment and allocating more of the Ministry of Justice's resources towards dealing with real criminals, instead of drug users that are not harming anyone else. Additionally, decriminalizing drugs now would help Brazil's societal drug problem never reach the swollen size of that in the U.S.

If the current minister, Gilmar Ferreira Mendes, listens to his colleagues, it will be a step towards better health and security for all of Brazil. Decriminalization is a mature, compassionate, and economically wise response to personal drug use, especially for a country with consumption and an incarceration problem.

It is high time for both the U.S. and Brazil, countries with consumption and incarceration problems, to put the failed drug war on their agenda – and start addressing it by decriminalizing personal drug use.