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Brazil: Drug Decriminalization Advances Rights

The decriminalization of drug possession for personal use in Brazil, which the Supreme Court is scheduled to address on September 9, 2015, would be an important advance for human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs is unnecessary and disproportionate for behavior that is ultimately a matter of personal choice. Personal use of drugs should be treated as an aspect of privacy and personal autonomy.
Maria Laura Canineu

Brazil director

“Brazil can and should deter people from harmful use of drugs, just as it has non-penal public policies against smoking or alcohol abuse,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “What it should not do is punish drug users through the criminal law.” 

The Court will decide whether the law that considers the possession of drugs for personal use a crime violates article 5 of Brazil’s Constitution, which guarantees the right to privacy.

The right to privacy is broadly recognized under international law, including in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Brazil.

Human Rights Watch research around the world has found that the criminalization of drug use is particularly harmful to the right to health. Fear of criminal penalties deters people who use drugs from using health services and treatment, and increases their risk of suffering violence, discrimination, and serious illness. Criminal prohibitions have also impeded the use of drugs for legitimate medical research, and have prevented patients from accessing drugs for palliative care and pain treatment.
A woman holds up a sign that reads "legalize" during a demonstration in support of the legalization of marijuana in Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 23, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Governments have a legitimate interest in protecting third parties from harm resulting from drug use, such as driving under the influence. They may impose, consistent with human rights, proportionate criminal penalties on behavior that occurs in conjunction with drug use if that behavior causes or seriously risks harm to others.

Under Brazilian law, possessing drugs for personal use is a crime that does not carry a penalty of imprisonment. Those convicted of the charges can be subject to the following penalties: a warning, community service, or attending an educational course. Convictions are included in the drug users’ criminal record, which may have negative consequences for them if they are detained and tried for other crimes later on.

“Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs is unnecessary and disproportionate for behavior that is ultimately a matter of personal choice,” Canineu said. “Personal use of drugs should be treated as an aspect of privacy and personal autonomy.”

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