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Brazil’s new drug policy emphasizes prevention and community action

the front cover of a crosscurrents magazine- the main image is a vase with bold coloured flowers

By Astrid Van Den Broek

Autumn 2004, Vol 8 No 1


“Rather than being the victim of the drug problem, society is the solution!” That, in a nutshell, was the theme of a presentation on Brazil’s drug policy given by General Paulo Roberto Yog de Miranda Uchoa, Brazil's national anti-drug secretary, last spring at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.When it comes to tackling its drug culture and related problems, Brazil has come a long way. For years, the country was considered a gateway for illegal narcotics and other substances. But in the last six years, Brazil has made a complete about-face. Once a country lacking a strategy to deal with its drug-related issues, it has embraced a humanistic, preventative, working-with-the-people approach, supported by its current president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“Until 1998, we had no national drug policy,” said Uchoa. “We were considered by the United Nations as a transit country, not a high consumption country.” But that year, following a general un assembly at which the concept of shared responsibility was addressed in drug trafficking, Brazil began to develop its current policy. The National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Senad) was born, and Brazil held its first national anti-drug forum. Out of that forum, a technical commission was formed that created the first national policy on drugs, which was adopted by the government in December 2001.

“The policy takes into consideration the social and psychological factors connected to drug consumption,” noted Uchoa. “It is characterized by pragmatism and the absence of prejudices, and embraces the involvement of society, especially young people, in the solution.” The policy recognizes the differences among the user, “the person making undue use,” the person with substance dependence and the drug trafficker, and in turn, treats each differently. “The policy recognizes that the simple user is not a criminal and should not be treated as such,” said Uchoa. “But it also considers it necessary to make users aware that they are financing organized crime.”

Underlying this policy are a preventative and a municipalization approach. Rather than simply focus on the consequences of Brazil’s drug problems, Uchoa noted that prevention acts on the root of the problem: it focuses on people not yet involved with drugs. For the country, prevention means “educating them and supplying them, in a form accessible to their cultural context, with scientifically validated information on the possible negative consequences of drug abuse,” said Uchoa. Educating young people is key to prevention; not merely teaching them about the negative health effects of drug use, but emphasizing healthy lifestyles.

Alongside prevention, municipalization takes a more community-minded approach. “With the municipalization of action, the next move for the national drug policy system within Brazil is guaranteed, and the prevention message facilitates communication with citizens through the family, schools, churches, workplaces and leisure spaces,” said Uchao. Community buy-in and action are key. “It is no use to conceive brilliant plans in Brazil or in the state capitals if they are not absorbed at the municipal level and adapted to local realities,” added Uchao.

Various projects are now underway to translate policy into action. One is a project aimed at helping 5,000 public school teachers educate students about drugs. National surveys on drug use among elementary and secondary school students, as well as among children not in the school system or living on the streets, will also be conducted. “We are also mapping treatment institutions, with a view toward identifying the resources available and the services offered, and making that information accessible to interested people,” said Uchao. The effectiveness of services is also being evaluated, with the goal of merging social services with Brazil’s health system.

In the end, Uchoa noted that at Brazil’s three levels of government, the unifying themes are strengthening the new national drug policy system, integrating sectoral policies with these overriding national policies, co-ordinating the decentralization of these actions and offering public, private and non-governmental organizations instruments to work with, such as diagnostics and human resources. “The policy is awakening in society awareness of its strength to educate, inform and develop its citizens for efficient and effective action in drug demand reduction,” said Uchao.