<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Celia Szterenfeld
DR 2003 Al Giordano

Drug Users and Addicts are "Self-Organizing" in Brazil

Celia Szterenfeld's "Pedagogy of Harm Reduction" Takes Root


By Al Giordano
Part II of a series from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

March 28, 2003

Finally, someone can answer my question of 15 months ago: What ever happened to that law to decriminalize drug use that was proposed by the administration of then-president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso?

The National Congress, in January 2002, amended (read: gutted) the legislation in mysterious ways, but no commercial press agency reported what happened to the bill that almost, but did not, make history.

Here on the Narco News Team, we’ve been asking about that law for 15 months… and nobody knew, not even the activists or experts in Brazilian drug policy we interviewed knew…

But, at last, we found somebody who knows:

Celia knows.

“In January of 2002, Congress passed a law in Brazil,” begins Celia Szterenfeld, director of PIM, the Integrated Program of the Marginalized, a non-governmental organization that works with addicts and sex workers who want to organize themselves to fight for their needs and wants, based in the chaotic coastal city of Rio de Janeiro. “The law instituted Drug Courts according to the model used in some parts of the United States. For drug users, it doesn’t change things much. Users are told to enter forced addiction treatment facilities, or go to prison.”

Beyond the vague and unreported nature of that January 2002 law, not even that weak reform has been implemented, she tells us. “Here in Brazil, sometimes they pass laws but the laws don’t stick,” she continues. “This law hasn’t been used much. To make a law work, you need to create structures. It often depends on what the local governments do.”

But Szterenfeld – unlike some drug policy and harm reduction activists and organizations in the United States who would be happy with a program of Drug Courts, with forced treatment instead of forced jail – is not pleased at all with the new law.

“We are totally against drug courts,” she explains.

Understand this well, kind reader: She and her colleagues, based on their street-level knowledge, are so strongly against drug courts that, she informs Narco News, they have contracted lawyers to file lawsuits against individual medical doctors who participate in the forced imposition of “treatment” on addicts: “Because,” she, a psychologist, notes, “it is unethical.”

“The root problem of implementing drug courts,” Szterenfeld explains, “is that they violate the Brazilian Constitution and the right to not be forced to provide evidence against yourself. If they force you to submit to periodic drug testing, they are violating the Constitution.”

The Self-Organized Addict

The political stance and strategic wisdom of Szterenfeld and her colleagues who gather in Rio de Janeiro this week (see related story, Part I of this series, “A Drug Policy from Below”) is this: They don’t go asking or begging authorities, cup in hand, on bended knee, for little scraps called “reform.”

Instead, they start with the needs of the people, and fight tooth and nail to make the authorities comply with the real desires and demands of an increasingly organized populace.

It may be difficult for many people without direct experience with drug users and addicts, especially those in the “developed world” who trust the Commercial Media to give them “information” about such matters, to believe that it is possible for “drug users” or other criminalized sectors on the imposed margins of society to be self-organized. I mean, aren’t druggies supposed to be disorganized by their very nature and definition? That’s what the media says. That’s what authority says. That’s what the medical establishment claims. That’s what the university professors, with notable exceptions, teach. That’s what people are led, falsely, to believe.

But here it is, happening someplace in a country called América: An increasingly self-organized population of drug users – hard drug users! Cocaine and crack users! – is standing up, together, and fighting for dignity, for justice, for freedom, as other groups that society had pushed to the margins – racial, religious, or sexual minorities; as well as gender and economic majorities – have done, with success, in some open societies already.

In a splendid irony, Celia Szterenfeld tells that her passion for justice in her native country of Brazil was born, paradoxically, in the United States, in the early and mid 1980s, when she was a student at Columbia University in New York.

“I am primarily committed to fighting the AIDS epidemic,” she tells. “I lost many friends in New York in the 1980s. And now I work with Civil Society in Brazil. The work we do is to foment the self-organization of marginalized groups.”

The Road to Self-Organization

The road to self-organization began in 1991 when Celia and others participated in fomenting this activity among women in the sex industry – the people the world calls prostitutes; as if any form of labor in which we sell our bodies, fingers, brains, eyes, ears, to others out of economic necessity, is somehow distinct?

“In 1994, we started organizing drug users. There had already been, since 1991, an organization of families of prison inmates. An important political leader of the prostitutes, Gabriela Silva Leite had traveled to Europe for international meetings in 1988 and 1989 and returned and started organizing…”

By 1993, the wildfire of self-organization had spread to the extensive transvestite sex worker community in The Marvelous City. That moment was, indeed, a kind of turning point.

“On any given day, there are 3,000 women and transvestites working the street, in 20 different locations. We don’t have a red light district here. It is more disperse,” says Szterenfeld. “How many sex workers are there in total? In the neighborhood of Copacabana alone we estimate there are 5,000 sex workers. In Rio de Janeiro, unlike in Sao Paulo, we don’t have a system of pimps. The women and transvestites are independent. They have organized themselves that way.”

“By organizing, I mean, first, they used to have no solidarity among themselves,” recalls Szterenfeld. “One could be preyed upon by a client, harmed, beaten, killed, and only very rarely would another do anything to stop it. But now, they train each other to write down the license plates numbers of the cars that pick up others. They train themselves to recognize the model of a car, the color, other identifying features…”

“Today there is very little client violence,” she notes, “except against the transvestites. But the trannies are becoming very organized. They don’t have children and family problems like many of the women workers. Not a lot of them, here, want sex-change operations… only five to ten percent, at most, want to be operated on. And, of course, they are very bold and brave already.”

Limiting the Power of “Authority”

As a result of the self-organizing processes of the marginalized sex workers, the situation has, over the past decade, improved dramatically. The organized workers limited the spaces in which Power – licit or illicit – could harass and harm them. “There is still sometimes a police raid, especially before Carnaval, when the authorities want to make headlines,” she explains. “But here the law says that you can’t be arrested for soliciting, for standing on the corner… It is illegal for hotel owners to provide rooms for prostitution, and it is illegal for someone to be a client, a John… but the clients are never prosecuted. There are some regulations about nudity, especially in commercial hours… But the police are not daily harassing and arresting the sex workers like occurs in so many other parts of the world.”

The same organizing principle, says Szterenfeld, can and is being applied, now, by drug users and addicts in Brazil, limiting the spaces for authority to harm them further.

“We are developing a pedagogy of Harm Reduction,” she adds, in a reference to the landmark work of the Brazilian Paulo Freire, author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” one of her formative intellectual influences. Another influence, she notes, comes from the United States: The part of the feminist movement of the 1970s that did not end up allying with Churches and patriarchs in censorious anti-sexuality campaigns, but, rather, the part of the movement with roots in the work of the Boston Collective, authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” disseminating information directly gathered from below.

And yet, although the ideas of the Boston Collective and even Paulo Freire have long taken root in sexual politics inside the United States, and, regarding drug policy, although there are Harm Reduction organizations there, and other organizations like Act-Up and the heroic Medical Marijuana clubs, the concept of the self-organization of hard drug users has had less success in the giant drug consumer nation to the North than it is enjoying in Brazil.

“Why do you think it has happened here?” a colleague asked me today. I can venture a guess: Brazil is not a drug producing country. It is a drug consuming country. It has the second largest volume of cocaine consumption in all América… second to that in the United States.

A Model for Drug Consumer Nations

As a consumer nation, Brazil has emerged as a superior laboratory of Harm Reduction regarding hard drugs than that of the United States. Whereas, in some brave parts of the U.S.A., clean needles are distributed to addicts (the same happens here, but through the good work of a different organization that we will report on in the coming days), and of course the highly successful Medical Marijuana movement is at war today with the occupying forces of the Federal State in Washington DC, users and addicts of hard drugs in the North have not, so far, succeeded in self-organizing in a manner that effectively limits the maneuvering room of Power to repress and oppress them.

Self-organization, Brazilian style, has arrived.

The Pedagogy of Harm Reduction in Brazil has the potential to turn the drug policy reform movement, internationally, on its head, and turn drug policy with it. In the United States, among some drug legalization activists, there is a tendency that discounts “harm reduction” efforts as being too piecemeal, too “acceptable,” too “lite,” too slow… and it may be that something is lacking from some of those efforts (although our tendency at Narco News has always been “let a thousand flowers bloom and let drug prohibition die the death of a thousand cuts”)… But let me try, kind reader, to explain the difference…

When we think of traditional “harm reduction” efforts in the United States, we tend to think – sometimes correctly, sometimes not – of a social worker or medical “authority” offering clean needles or drug treatment to addicts, in a traditional “social program” type setting… Something more associated with charity and “do-gooderism” – and the self-perpetuation of bureaucracies and medical or psychiatric “authority” over individual autonomy – than of self-organization and empowerment…

But in Brazil, power is surging from the other direction: Drug users and addicts, like other marginalized groups such as the aforementioned sex industry workers and family members of prison inmates, are taking control of their own daily lives without waiting for the government or any authority to give permission. They advance, and Power then has to adapt to the new realities they assert from the grassroots level. The governmental reforms come as a response to self-organization; they do not precede or cause it.

This is significant for many good reasons but an especially powerful one is this: As drug users and addicts organize from the local level upward and outward, they politicize themselves, they train themselves and each other in the skills of democracy and how to move government and media structures that had previously either ignored them or repressed them or both. This Brazilian Harm Reduction movement has now become the dominant tendency in a national drug legalization movement previously led mainly by people who simply, and justly, want the right to smoke marijuana: but those sectors have long been led by the middle classes and upper classes, as in the United States.

Breaking the Class Wall of Drug Policy Reform

The Brazilian Harm Reduction movement has broken the class wall of drug policy reform: the leaders, the spokespersons, and the organizers are not representing others; they are presenting themselves, with all the power and wisdom that can only be found, on this planet, from the ranks of the masses.

Thus, when Celia Szterenfeld and her colleagues sit and strategize, and discuss grand global events, such as what will occur in 2006 when the nations of the world must renegotiate international drug enforcement treaties, she can comment that she and the others should tell Brazilian President Lula da Silva to refuse to sign the proposed renewal of the current treaty that imposes drug prohibition on all lands.

And she and they can discuss something that large, that international, (the people telling their president what to do! Imagine!) with the knowledge that, because they are organized from the bases, they have an attainable shot at creating the conditions so that their elected president could take that bold step; one that, if the President of Brazil did it, he would surely be joined by leaders of other Latin American nations and probably others from distinct continents.

Thus, they surge from the bases of the many corners of this vast country, from so many horizontal directions at once, upward toward those in power. And those in power, soon, right now, in fact, must offer a genuine response.

It is no longer an option, in drug policy, to marginalize the masses. They, we, you, are coming to topple the disastrous policy of drug prohibition through the authentically democratic principle of self-organization.

This, already, is not your father’s drug legalization movement of white shoe libertarian lawyers and college educated counterculture marijuana enthusiasts, although they are very welcome, too, at the table… This is a movement that reflects the authentic face of the world, and it is looking you directly in the eye. When it looks back at you from the mirror, you will know, kind reader, that victory is at hand.

Miss Part I of this series? Read it here:
A Drug Policy from Below

Read Part III of this Series:
130 Drug War Opponents Gather in São Paulo

Read Part IV of this Series:
Brazil Health Official Slams Current Drug Policy

Read Part V of this Series:
The Marginal Diplomat Explains “Organized Crime” in Brazil

Read Part VI of this Series:
The History of Brazilian Harm Reduction

Read Part VII of this Series:
“President Lula, listen to the experience of your countrymen!”

Read Part VIII of this Series:
The Marketing of Drug War Myths

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America