Since 2016, Brazil has slid into a far-right government after the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff. In 2019, Jair Bolsonaro was elected President – a far-right leader who has been stringently against cannabis reform. However, with the potential for Bill 399/55 to pass, legalizing the cultivation of medical marijuana, Brazil’s history of cannabis laws has been brought to the forefront.
It is unclear when marijuana was first introduced into Brazil. Some postulate that enslaved people brought from African brought it to the South American country, while others assert that it was Portuguese colonists. However, there is documented evidence that in the 1800s, slave-owners blamed cannabis on “reduced” slave productivity (even though the royalty and upper-class in Brazil widely used cannabis) and declared the herb illegal. This outlawing, founded on the atrocious enslaving of Africans, led to Rio de Janeiro becoming the first place in the world to punish people who grew and used cannabis in 1830.
In a twisted foreshadowing of penalizations in the modern world, primarily Afro-Brazilians were unjustly targeted (a practice rooted in racism that continues to this day across the world). Brazil’s anti-marijuana policies continued to evolve and in 1925 the country became hugely influential in swaying other countries’ marijuana policies. Brazilian doctor Pernambuco Filho e Gotuzzo declared cannabis “worse than opium” at a League of Nations meeting. Many Latin American countries – and world countries in general – prohibited marijuana quickly after this meeting. Unlike several other Latin American countries, like those who have made steps towards legalization, Brazil has been lagging ever since.
Brazil’s political system in the mid to late 1900s was one of unrest and violence. In 1964, a coup was staged and successfully overthrew then-President João Goulart’s reformist government. This led to a military-run state vying for power with top conservative government officials who opposed Goulart. During this brutal regime, a new Narcotics Law was passed in 1976, leading to increased police seizures of illegal drugs, with cannabis as one of the biggest targets. As confiscation increased, so did the supply and demand of marijuana (perhaps leading to more underground acceptance that has helped fuel the social cannabis reform movement in recent years.) The coup caused twenty-one long years of massive social unrest, economic instability, and government corruption. It ended in 1984, under mounting world and social pressure, when the Brazilian government transitioned to a moderate President with no military ties. It took another four years for the government to officially declare the Federal Constitution of Brazil (now the Federal Republic of Brazil) in 1988.
While many countries across the world are making revolutionary steps to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis use, Brazil is a country that has yet to take several key steps. For example, unlike bordering Uruguay, which recently legalized tourists purchasing cannabis as just the latest step in reform, the cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana are still illegal in Brazil. In 2006, the “New Drug Law” passed; while this law did not decriminalize the use of marijuana, it did lessen consequences for possession. Now punishments range from warnings on drug use to consumers taking educational courses or completing community services. There is still fierce debate on whether or not these lesser sentences are actually honored when someone is arrested.
On the other hand, the 2006 law raised penalties for any person who sells or even freely distributes cannabis. This ends up targeting low-level dealers who could be selling small bags instead of cartels or high-sale traffickers distributing mass quantities. This law is still in place and often targets the poor and Afro-Brazilian communities, further disenfranchising citizens that are already unfairly marginalized.
In 2015, Brazil legalized the medicinal use of cannabis for multiple sclerosis patients only. This practical step in legalization was terrific for both patients and reformers. However, the process for patients getting medical marijuana was highly arduous and not always promised. Despite the effort made in 2015, there were still massive steps that needed to be taken.
This convoluted and complex history leads to the most recent cannabis law proposed, Bill 399/55. Activists have marched in the Rio Global Marijuana March as far back as 2011, advocating for legalization. Despite passionate advocacy, a 2018 survey found nearly 70% of Brazilians were against the legalization of marijuana. With the current President Bolsonaro in power, the outlook for cannabis is bleak. Bolsonaro has been accused of using authoritarian techniques on his critics and is famously anti-drug and pro-pharma. He has referred to Bill 399/55 as “crap” and is vehemently against it. However, not all hope is lost for Brazilian activists.
Politicians in both the House and Senate may be willing to defy Bolsonaro and vote the bill into action. Agricultural lobbyists have been targeting politicians to support the bill due to the growth cannabis cultivation would provide for Brazilian agriculture. Medical marijuana farming could also place Brazil on the world map as an exporter of cannabis, bringing money to an often inflated and unsteady economy. These reasons drive massive pro-marijuana opinions in political circles, and Bill 399/55 is expected to pass the House and the Senate. Bolsonaro will no doubt veto it, but Congress can overturn the veto, and the bill could still become law despite a veto – it’s pretty much as complex and messy as it is here in the States. Voting is expected to take place in late November, and whether or not the bill is passed will set a precedent for cannabis law moving forward.
Brazil’s complicated history with cannabis is rooted in racism, antiquated ideas on social class, and prejudice. If Bill 399/55 passes, it will be the first step of many needed to help address these issues as they relate to cannabis. Activists fighting for equality through the legalization process have a long road to go. However, as open-minded and passionate Brazilian citizens advocate in the face of opposition, there is always hope Brazil will move into a new age of cannabis law.