Brazil's Supreme Court has begun discussing the potential decriminalization of personal drug use, in a landmark case that could do much to decongest the country's overcrowded prison system.
On August 19, Brazil's high court began debating the case of an inmate in a São Paulo prison who was charged with possessing three grams of marijuana, reported the Associated Press. The inmate's lawyers have contested the charge, saying the ruling violated the right to privacy protected under Brazil's Constitution.
The Supreme Court's ruling could decriminalize drug possession in Brazil, one of the last remaining countries in Latin America where it is still considered a criminal offense, according to the Associated Press. In 2006, reforms partially decriminalized drug consumption by providing alternatives to prison sentences, such as rehabilitation and community service.
Brazil's Attorney General, Rodrigo Janot, has already spoken out against the potential reforms. Janot said criminal groups would simply start trafficking in smaller quantities in order to skirt harsher punishments, reported Estadão.
InSight Crime Analysis
If Brazil were to fully decriminalize drug possession, it could lead to a considerable reduction in the country's prison population, which is at nearly double the maximum capacity for inmates, according to government figures. In addition to frequent use of pre-trial detention, Brazil's harsh drug laws have also contributed to overcrowding.
Current drug legislation gives courts discretion in determining between a drug user and a trafficker, which carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison. This had reportedly led to many consumers being convicted as traffickers. According to the Transnational Institute, the percentage of inmates in Brazilian prisons incarcerated on drug-related charges jumped from under 10 percent in 2005 (the year prior to the drug law reform) to nearly 20 percent in 2009.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
Strict drug laws are closely linked to prison overcrowding in countries throughout the region. "Across Latin America, drug policies are a primary factor fueling... prison population crises," Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) recently told the Christian Science Monitor.
Nonetheless, Attorney General Janot's outspoken opposition to drug decriminalization is indicative of the kind of resistance to such reforms. In many ways, this tension in Brazil reflects the wider drug policy landscape throughout Latin America. Despite several notable achievements for drug policy reform advocates in recent years, many governments continue to treat drug use as a criminal rather than health issue.