UNODC's contribution to the 2nd public hearing on regulation of cannabis in Brazil

Coronel Jorge da Silva, Cristovam Buarque and Nivio Nascimento

Brasília, 18 August 2014 - Read below the full speech given by the Programme Officer on Rule of Law of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Nivio Nascimento, during the 2 nd public hearing about the regulation of cannabis in the Brazilian Senate.  

Good morning!

I would like to thank the President for inviting the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - UNODC - to participate in this debate on Suggestion n. 8/2014, which considers the regulation of recreational, industrial or medical use of cannabis. Following the presentation by the UNODC Representative in Brazil, Mr. Rafael Franzini, I am honored to be here to discuss the public safety implications of a possible regulation of cannabis, an issue that worries many sectors of Brazilian society.

In this regard, I will not address issues already discussed in the previous public hearing. I would like to clarify that I am not here to defend or attack the project suggestion. My intention is to contribute with elements from an international perspective and bring some important questions for the debate. The answers are not easy and they depend on an extensive debate among different sectors of Brazilian society.

On the topic of international agreements and treaties, it is important to mention the existence of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which is an independent body that monitors the implementation of the International Conventions of the United Nations on drug control. UNODC is the UN body responsible for supporting countries in the implementation of the three UN conventions on drugs, as well as the conventions against transnational organized crime and corruption.  UNODC's mandate is extremely wide and intersectoral, ranging from health issues to complex cases of corruption and organized crime. This mandate is implemented through a broad approach of the social problems associated with drugs and crime. It is a little bit of that perspective that I intend to bring here today.

First, it is not possible to say that an eventual regulation of cannabis could reduce or even wipe out organized crime. There is no reliable evidence about the possible long-term impacts. That is because only a few states in the United States and Uruguay are just beginning to regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis, and we will only be able to estimate the impacts of these initiatives after a long period of time. It is essential to observe what happens in other countries and states that are discussing and/or implementing regulation regarding the following aspects of cannabis: a) market evolution; b) impacts on the illicit market for cannabis; c) consequences on the illicit market for other drugs. All of this must be done from a monitoring process that allows us to perceive changes and continuities over time, from historical series. This process must be continuous and answers are not final. Adjustments must always be done​​ on the basis of reliable scientific evidence, which must be produced by various fields of knowledge. Moreover, it is also important to consider the cost-benefit relation that regulating production and sale would bring to a country with continental dimensions. It is not a simple challenge to create an entire structure to regulate production, sale and consumption in a federative state like Brazil.

Production, trafficking and consumption of cannabis are part of a transnational illicit market that involves coordination and financial flows between criminal organizations based in different countries, relying very often on corruption or connivance of public officials. In this context, it is impossible to establish the boundaries between the trafficking of cannabis, guns, base paste, cocaine, contraband, and other criminal activities. Examples of groups that practice more than one type of criminal activity are common. The challenge is to understand the relations between these different practices of organized crime within a market logic. In this sense, a possible legalization of cannabis would have unpredictable effects on the dynamics of crime, besides shifting criminal group's focus to other illicit activities.

The very well-known example of the American Prohibition also demonstrates how professional criminal groups are able to adapt to new times in a very fast and effective way. The regulation of alcohol may have ended the production, sale and illicit use, but it was not able to neither control the mafia's activities nor reduce consumption. This is one of the reasons why this discussion should not be led by the objective of ending or reducing organized crime.

The most effective way to deal with organized crime and illicit trafficking has been precisely to focus efforts on the economic gains of organized groups. The pursuit of profit is the common base of organized crime and at some point the money resulting from illegal activities has to enter the financial system. And this is a great opportunity to reduce the capacity of these groups to corrupt public officials and oppress populations living in vulnerable territories, besides causing serious damage to people's health. Despite efforts, the international community still has a long way to go on fighting money laundering and recovering assets resulting from crime

This movement is essential not only to restrain drug trafficking but also other types of organized crime. It is not about one country's specific problem, but a matter of shared responsibility. Regardless of the legalization of illicit substances, it is important to consider that professional criminal groups always pose a threat to the rule of law and development. With its recent economic stability and growth, Brazil has become an increasingly attractive market to drug trafficking and it is important to think about integrated strategies. Strategies that take into account the trafficking of illicit drugs as a whole and their relationship with other types of organized crime. To the same extent, the answers to the problem must be integrated and intersectoral, because the problems posed by drugs require the involvement of multiple government areas that include health policy, education, social assistance and, of course, public safety.

Seeking an easy and quick profit, organized groups recruit cheap labor for drug trafficking in an illicit labor market that has vulnerable people as its main target. In this view, it does not matter if we are talking about cannabis, cocaine or crack. The market's main victims are people who seek work and money, or want to consume any illegal substance. Several studies have demonstrated an immense difficulty in facing the "criminality of the powerful", whether in the production, consumption or trafficking of illegal substances. In most countries, the role of security forces and the justice system has focused precisely on those who are in the most vulnerable conditions in this chain that goes from the production to the consumption of illicit drugs. We are talking about people who go through some sort of economic and social exclusion; people who have difficulty in getting access to legal aid in their relation with criminal justice; people who need care in the health system.

Almost everywhere, the prison system incarcerates users and small dealers in conditions that neither provide social reintegration nor decrease supply and demand for drugs. Instead, mass incarceration, followed by serious human rights violations, has facilitated the emergence of "crime universities" and strengthened criminal groups with high organizational capacity. Usually, people who are imprisoned come from contexts of great social vulnerability and the criminal justice system has a low ability to deal with those who have more power and influence over the drug trade. Alternatives to traditional justice, such as restorative and therapeutic justice, among other alternatives to incarceration, should be at the center of the agenda to reverse the public safety situation, since exposure to the prison environment has facilitated the link with criminal organizations, extended prejudice and aggravated health conditions and social exclusion.

Although the non-medical use of psychotropic substances is prohibited by drug control conventions, the severity of punishment varies significantly from one country to another. Being objects of interpretation and alignment depending on the legal system of each signatory country, the conventions do not provide on how users, producers and traffickers should be punished. But it is correct to say that the reduction of supply and demand must be in line with international human rights instruments and take place in accordance with the principle of proportionality of sentences. In other words, all countries have severe punishments for trafficking large quantities of drugs and drug-related violent crimes. On the other hand, there is great diversity in the way they punish crimes related to the use, the possession and the micro-trafficking of narcotics. To the same extent, penalties for crimes associated to drug use vary, as is the case for people with a high degree of dependence.

Our Executive Director, Mr. Yury Fedotov, has stated the need to restore the balance between actions aimed at reducing supply and reducing demand for drugs. For many years, drug policies have focused on reducing supply through repressive actions against the use, possession and trafficking of narcotics. In this process, reducing demand remained as a secondary target. Reducing demand translates into actions targeted at education, treatment, rehabilitation and social reintegration of drug addicts and users. Approaches focused on health, education, counseling and reintegration actions have proven to be much more effective in reducing demand and there is already enough scientific evidence about it. If today it is not possible to reach a consensus on the regulation, decriminalization or depenalisation of some illicit substances, including cannabis, there are strong convergences in Brazilian society about the need for treatment and care for drug users and addicts. And in this point there is also a long way to go.

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