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On February 2, 2014,  Alda Castilho, a 27-year-old military police officer  died after suspected drug traffickers opened fire on her squad in a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro. “Her death was in vain,” her mother, Maria Rosalina da Silva, told us last month.

Castillo was one of the almost 60,000 homicide victims in Brazil in 2014. It is unknown how many were the victims of drug traffickers. In Niterói, São Gonçalo and Itaboraí, three cities within Rio de Janeiro´s metropolitan area, about 400 of the 480 homicides  in 2014 were drug-related, estimates Fábio Barucke, the Civil Police’s chief of homicide investigations in that region.

Brazil’s approach to criminalizing drug production and distribution has fueled the growth of criminal organizations and weakened the rule of law.

A 17-year-old Brazilian drug gang member poses with a gun atop a hill overlooking a slum in Salvador, Bahia State on April 11, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

The “war on drugs” is the main driver of police operations in shantytowns, which often end in death. Brazil´s police killed more than 3,000 people in 2014, according to official data. While the police routinely say these deaths resulted from shootouts with criminals, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in the last decade in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in which the evidence strongly suggests they were extrajudicial executions. In some instances in Rio de Janeiro, according to prosecutors and police officers Human Rights Watch interviewed, corrupt police officers involved with drug traffickers committed the killings. 

Apart from contributing to the spike in homicides and the strengthening of deadly gangs, Brazil’s “war on drugs” has also failed to achieve its objectives. Drugs are more plentiful now and stronger than in the 1970s, when the United States began pushing the rest of the world to fight the illegal drug trade.

Police officials described to us the futility of anti-drug operations. Military Police Major Roberto Valente, for example, told us that if they capture a low-level operative, such as a lookout, his gang will give him a gun and promote him once he leaves prison.

Often, top traffickers simply continue their trade from prison. If the police kill them, they are likely to be replaced before the body is stiff.

Having suffered so much in the name of fighting drugs, Brazil should encourage a new approach during the UN´s Special Session on this issue, which starts today in New York. It is time to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use and to take a look at legalizing drugs.

Opponents of decriminalization argue that it will increase drug use, but the experiences of other countries do not support that assertion. In Portugal, which decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use 15 years ago, the number of people dependent on drugs decreased, as did HIV transmission among drug users and incarceration rates.

Some countries are trying out the legalization of production, distribution and use of marijuana, the most commonly used illegal drug. Early evidence suggests this may cut into the profits of drug traffickers without firing a single bullet. Brazil should consider doing the same.

A new approach to drugs may save the country millions of reals that could be used for drug treatment and the prevention of violence. Most important, it could save thousands of lives every year. It is time to put an end to the current senseless policy.

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