Home » Side event: Facing racism in drug policy: the colour of incarceration, lethality and drug abuse – the Brazilian experience

Side event: Facing racism in drug policy: the colour of incarceration, lethality and drug abuse – the Brazilian experience

Chair: We have a progressive drug law in Brazil. No one should be imprisoned under the rule of law. But we have many in jail.

Eduardo Rebiero dos Santos: In Brazil, black people represents about 53% of the total population, which is the equivalent to more than one hundred million people. And these people are found in the trajectory of the violence, marked by a total of 1 million deaths in the last 35 years. The vast majority consists of young blacks. Brazil is the seventh most violent nation in the world.

By comparing the official data available in Brazil and recent research on violence, drug trafficking, imprisonment and homicides recorded in Brazil and published in the National Youth Office documents, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Brazilian Forum on Public Security, map of Violence, and the UN, we can identify a cruel and overwhelming reality for the development project of Brazil: Brazilian black youth live (and die) in a condition analogous to genocide.

In the last 35 years, deaths provoked by firearms among young people increased about 460%, and accounted for about 1 million deaths. In 2012, 56,337 of this kind of homicides were registered, from which 24,882 people between 15 and 29 years old were killed. It is important to note that 70% were black. These deaths provoked by firearms affected proportionally 142% more blacks than whites: about two and a half times more.

Between 2002 and 2011, the participation of young whites in the total number of homicides in the country decreased from 36.7% to 22.8%, while the participation of black youth rises from 63% to 76.9%.

In the Brazilian prison system the situation is also dramatic. According to the Integrated Penitentiary Information System (Infopen), from five hundred and fifty thousand people arrested, young people represent 54.8% of the Brazilian prison population. From these total, about 60% is black. The female population has grown 567% in the last fifteen years. More than 60% of them were imprisoned due to the drug law.

Contributing to this perverse situation of Brazilian institutional racism, let’s observe the people living on the streets in Brazil today, another privileged space for the exercise of state violence. According to a research requested by SENAD-Ministry of Justice to Fiocruz, 8 out of 10 people living on the streets are black. Although 70,9% of this population has gainful activity, according to the same survey, an important part of the charges on public insecurity in the urban scene lies on them.

In 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published the white paper From Coercion to Cohesion – Treating drug dependence through health care, not punishment. The document already recognized the need to invest in strategies to promote social cohesion as opposed to police coercion, in this case also understood as the militarization of other state apparatus.

In 2014 the United Nations released a paper, which concludes that racism in Brazil is “structural and institutionalized.” And for the United Nations representation in the country, the use of force and violence to control crime is accepted by society because it is perpetuated against individuals to whom a set of rights has been denied through history. Brazil has 11 of the 30 most violent cities in the world, according to a document published by UNODC.

There is also another form of violence against black population, which is cruel but not bloody, at least at first sight. This form of violence seeks to dilute the events by the obliteration of reality, the over valorization of the economic factors and class to the detriment of race conditions, the invisibility of the evolution of Brazilian capitalism’s structural racism, and the legacies of slavery colonialism in history. White and black people are not even equal in poverty.

These and other factors contribute to indicate to society that violence may even be tolerable under certain conditions, targeted at and according to those who practice it, against whom it is practiced, how and where.

Connecting the agenda of drug policy with the agenda of black youth may show that deaths which have been recorded over the years were legitimized by the idea that there is a war on drugs; the history of prohibition also shows that the drug war has always been a war on people: it criminalizes poverty and put black youth in jail.

The Military Police in Brazil ranks first in killing people in comparison to other places in the world. It occupies the same position, regarding casualties of police officers. And it reinforces the sophisticated character of Brazilian racism where black people are being killed in their communities and black officers also lose their lives in these battles.

The suppression of the PM is among many recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council published in 2012. This topic has been in the agenda of Brazilian social movements for many years. Social movements ask for the abolition of the separate system of military and civil police, seeking to reduce the incidence of extrajudicial executions. In addition, the end of the legal mechanism (autos de resistência) that prevents the investigation of crimes committed by police forces is required.

The year 2015 marks the beginning of the Decade of Afrodescents to the United Nations and several narratives about its meaning and its implications arise in the political debate. Among these formulations, there is an agenda that points to the need to overcome some gaps between rhetoric and government decrees, proposed and discussed by several countries in international forums, and the current conditions of black people spread around the world. The structural racism promotes and perpetuates economic, political, historical, cultural inequalities, reproduces and maximizes violence and reduces the supply of rights. Thus, it is a driving force of oppressive conditions, where we find subaltern populations, raped and attacked in their fundamental rights, even in large democracies.

The Special Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGASS), which will be held in April 2016 in New York, will address the issue of drug policies around the world, and it is a historical window and a unique opportunity to evaluate and present proposals to overcome current paradigms of war. And it is essential to strengthen the participation of new voices who will present to delegations the issues faced particularly by producing countries and /or those that are in the trade route of illegal substances and live in conditions of extreme violence, with high levels of incarceration and mortality caused or legitimized by the war on drugs, as it is the case of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, for example. There are 56 thousand deaths in Brazil and more than five hundred thousand prisoners, more than 27 thousand deaths in Mexico and 14 thousand in Colombia.

The dispute of narratives of Decade of Afrodescents, as well as the next historical period in drug policy in the world, that began with the mobilizations for the UNGASS 2016 is underway. Various organizations are mobilized and we need to drive all questions on this subject and help to set up agents in a common position to advance. We need to create the conditions, raise the voices of those who are suffering daily violence, either through the lethality of war, or by conditions of insecurity, stigma or denial of rights. In this scope it is essential to bring the centrality of racial issues involved in drug policy.

On the adoption of new parameters for the current drug law, we should adopt a set of criteria to avoid incarceration of the defendant, turning the individual even more vulnerable.

– The lower income per capita, the greater is the vulnerability;

– The lower level of education, the greater is the vulnerability;

– Trafficking without guns poses no risk to life;

– If the main household income comes from traffic;

– If the defendant is the breadwinner of the family nucleus, the arrest of this defendant will increase the vulnerability of dependents under his or her responsibility;

– Do not send pregnant women to prison.

We must seek consensus, setting as priorities the preservation of life; overcoming mass incarceration; promoting more rights, more citizenship and more public participation. It is also essential to defend ensured access for problem drug users, the right to be accepted in good quality public facilities under a harm reduction based approach, as well as the investment in autonomy and health promotion.

Chair: It’s a broad picture that you painted, thank you. Lets continue with civil society.

Yolande A. Cadore, Drug Policy Alliance: ‘break the chains’ is the preeminent organisation making the link between drug policy and race. There is no other way to explain the mass arrest of black and brown bodies. How did we get here? Is it bad policies, or is it black people? Only 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of the imprisoned population. There are more than 1.5 million drugs arrests – 80% for drug law violations. Black people are far more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested, and convicted and then burdened with a lifelong felon record. The fed’s instituted mandatory minimums in 1986. The brotherhood (?) stated that the war on drugs has led to mass incarceration and was compared to enslavement – it was estimated that 1 in 3 African American men would go to jail if the trend continued. Between 1997 – 2010 we have seen a 70% increase in woman being incarcerated for drug offenses. Important that policy makers change the policy approach. To answer questions about this, we need to dig up our racist past. We must look at how it started – policy makers were able to build a racist system of law on antiquated, racist conceptions of black people. The continuing theme is confinement of African Americans. Black lives mattered in the 17th century and the 20th century. Policy makers must be intentional in recognizing our humanity and making policies based on this recognition. It has penetrated the very fabric of black life and society in the states. In many states drug conviction means a lifetime ban from social assistance. We have devised a policy system that perpetuates this, an obsession with suppression of African Americans. Marijuana suppressed the Mexicans, opium suppressed Chinese, there is no difference with crack and African Americans, history repeats itself. Must be proportionate sentencing for crack cocaine – it should be 1 for 1. Any other ratio is simply racist. Recent harm reduction approaches taken by the Obama administration are encouraging, this must be reflected in laws to protect African Americans. Must end mass incarceration – black lives matter in drug policy making. At this UNGASS, the US government must recognize this. Policies must be grounded in human rights and health. We urge the US to decriminalize drug possession.

Chair: There are many common concerns between Brazil and the States. Thanks for your contribution. Our next speaker represents the government of Brazil.

Luciana Ramos: It is important to build this pace together. We have been building a good dialogue with the government, it is important for the Caribbean, Latin America and the whole world. We have to think of drug policy beyond the notions of health and life, and not criminalization. It is good to be at a table with so many people taking about health and life. The state was built from the structures of inequality between white and black people. This structure of inequality has its foundations in the constitution of our state. In Brazil it has an extremely delicate character, in the 60s and 70s there was a theory that all black people and white people are Brazilian’s. This is a myth – if we don’t look at our differences, we don’t have a chance to assess our racism. Today we have a special secretary to promote racial equality. Once again it is the black people that call us to promote equality and fight racial equality. Drug policy is an instrument to eliminate that black population. We have a system in Brazil that criminalizes poverty. It’s not from the government. It is beyond that; it is the structure of the state. The crime of drug trafficking criminalizes black people. Must consider the high incarceration of black woman and young black people. Must take them out of a situation of economic vulnerability. In Brazil, we advanced in some areas, but we have a long way to go, especially in field of racism and drug policy. We manage to create new possibilities with a new interpretation, our law initiates with an extremely punitive / incarcerating approach. White people, when arrested with a small quantity of drugs, are usually let go with out punishment, but there is a different treatment for the black population. Usually women are arrested in Brazil because they have small quantities, but now they can operate in a more open regime. For the issue of incarcerating woman and young people are alternative sentences. Trafficking is a considered a very severe crime, and in this sense it becomes difficult to think of alternatives. Drug trafficking is connected to this structure of inequality. All the agencies and the police are directed to this population and this space where they live. This creates a process of making population more vulnerable. This promotes homicide, under the explanation that they are doing their duty. We need to find a discipline to investigate these cases. We must investigate all the crimes of homicide that are provoked by the police. And we need to find out what happened and explain to the black population why so many black people are going to die. There are many more things I would like to say, I would like to say that Brazil has a POA in the country and the region, to work in this decade to see how we can work inside this perspective, to build policy and instruments to work this issue and this subject. If the UN declares a decade for Afro descendants, how can we make drug policy if we don’t consider the black population. It is important what happened today, to discuss this issue with other people from other countries in order to build a mechanism to continue this dialogue – Drug policy cannot just look at the figure of a criminal.

Chair: that was a very important contribution and my takeaway is: The government of Brazil is willing to face this challenge and are willing to work with civil society to resolve some of the issues.

Additional panelist: First of all, I would like to thank our ambassador, for mediating this table. Thanks to the Brazilian government to accept to organize such an event. Our organisation, the collective of black entities, we have an important question to solve. There is a problem with who is disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. And event that happened yesterday … we realized that federal police are willing to fight the war on drugs further. They also admitted that they had fought the war and drug consumption has increased. Other entities of this government said they are willing to fight this war on drugs. The final text of the outcome document of UNGASS should include racism as a big point of debate.

Speaker from the floor: The history of the American empire has shown it is based on economies that promoted addiction, e.g. Sugar, alcohol. There is something perverse that a country now creates profit from stigma. The same way that we built empires, we are now sustaining empires. It is important to have this conversation in Vienna. The whole issue of drugs policy is intrinsically linked to race.


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