<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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Brazil Health Official Slams Current Drug Policy

Regina Benevides Criticizes Her Own Government's Anti-Drug Office


By Adriana Veloso
Part IV in a series, reported from Rio de Janeiro

April 2, 2003

A leading health official from the new administration of the Brazilian national government this week told a group of 35 authentic drug policy experts (see related story, “A Drug Policy from Below”), that she favors their approach: “harm reduction as a political and clinical strategy of treatment.”

“We have to produce arguments in favor of the Health Ministry to assume harm reduction policies as a question of public health,” said Regina Benevides, Executive Secretary of the Health Ministry.


Regina Benevides
Photo D.R. 2003 Adriana Veloso
Last Wednesday, Benevides attended a meeting with the National Anti-Drug Secretary (SENAD), headed, since the last administration, by the Colonel Paulo Roberto Ulchôa. About that meeting, Benevides said, “We presented the issue from another point of view; harm reduction as a priority for the Health Ministry.”

“The current drug policy is the same that was formulated by the former government,” clarifies Benevides.


Congressman Fernando Gabeira:
War on Drugs is “stupid”
Photo D.R. 2003 Adriana Veloso
The federal Congressman Fernando Gabeira, asked about Benevides’ statement, told Narco News that, “the idea of a National Anti-Drug Secretary is as stupid as the war on drugs.”

Marcelo Araújo Campos, the president of the Brazilian Association of Harm Reduction (ABORDA, in its Portuguese initials), agrees. He says that, “the SENAD doesn’t have the legitimacy or the competence to define national drug policy.” As one of the leading voices of the harm reduction movement, Araújo said, “We don’t dialogue with the SENAD. We cannot work together with an agency that has the words ‘anti-drug’ in its name.”

Benevides clarifies that, “there is no official policy of the Lula government regarding drugs, what we have is the policy as the SENAD has defined it.” And her alternative goes beyond simply shifting responsibility to her department: “We believe,” she said, “that this issue cannot be solved only by the Health Ministry, but rather with the participation of many sectors.”

The new administration inside the Heath Ministry is already working toward new legislation. In fact, the Health Ministry has proposed a complement to the law passed in 2002 amending drug policies: “The Health Ministry is in charge of normalizing harm reduction programs,” which it defines as, “making utensils and places for the safe use of drugs available,” said Benevides.

The assembled harm reduction workers received her words as a sign of hope.

“This law,” said Benevides, the public health official, of the 2002 drug “reform” law passed by Congress, “doesn’t contemplate harm reduction and does not make field work viable or more flexible.” Organizations that do this kind of work, she said, need, “the government as an ally,” and that is exactly what this woman, also a member of the “Torture: Never Again” organization in Brazil, wants to install inside the new government of which she is a member.

“However, there is still a prohibitionist path being followed in Brazil’s drug policy,” accuses Araújo, the ABORDA president. He explains that, “the SENAD is directly involved with the Lula administration, so it is hierarchically superior than the Ministries.” But there is a sign of hope. “Now both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health have the sensibility to treat this issue in a better way than the SENAD,” he explains.

Congressman Gabeira believes that, in the new administration, the Health Ministry “will influence the SENAD much more that the Justice Ministry, because it has a different way to treat the subject, since the drug consumer is no longer considered an object of police action but rather is a medical concern.”

But Benevides warned that “to maintain the status quo is much easier than making change,” and that’s why she asked the members of the Movement of Civil Society for Harm Reduction to “pressure the government to develop a national harm reduction strategy.”

Thus, the struggle to redefine Brazil’s drug policy is now being fought inside the highest levels of the Lula administration. Washington is betting on the SENAD. But Benevides’ view carries the weight of Civil Society. President Lula: The Whole World is Watching.

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