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Brazil removing independents from drugs policy council

July 22, 2019
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro smiles while wearing a Soya Growers' Association hat at the end of a swearing-in ceremony for the newly-named president of Brazil's Development Bank, at the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro smiles while wearing a Soya Growers' Association hat at the end of a swearing-in ceremony for the newly-named president of Brazil's Development Bank, at the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on Monday stripped a council that sets guidelines for drug policies of almost all non-government members, reviving claims that he is trying to stifle dissenting voices.

He also announced he’d like to eliminate altogether such councils, which are mostly mixed groups of government appointees, experts and representatives of civil society created to help formulate policy.

“We want to wipe out the councils, extinguish the vast majority of them so that the government can function,” Bolsonaro told reporters Monday, criticizing the presence of members appointed under previous governments who might not share the views of his administration.

“We cannot be held hostage by councils,” Bolsonaro said.

The decree nearly halves the size of the council that advises the government and Congress on all drug abuse issues. The body, which operates under the Justice and Public Security Ministry, approves or updates the national plan on drugs policy.

Experts chosen by associations of jurists, physicians, nurses, social workers and other independent groups will no longer be part of the council debate, leaving it mostly with those appointed by the government.

The new decree also includes a clause forbidding members to speak openly about the council’s discussions and projects without prior approval from government officials.

“With today’s decree, there is no more council, but an inter-ministerial group entirely made of government entities,” said Paulo Aguiar, a psychologist who had taken part in the council’s deliberations.

Aguiar acknowledged he was “very worried” by the government’s decision, saying that the shaping of drugs policies in Brazil will inevitably suffer from the loss of diversity in opinions, studies and research previously presented by experts and civil society.

Other entities previously part of the council, such as the Social Workers Federal Council, joined in to criticize an “authoritarian and undemocratic” measure that excludes “those who are most involved and deal with these issues on a daily basis.”

In response, a spokesperson for the Justice and Public Security Ministry highlighted to The Associated Press the creation of a new detached body made up of six experts. According to the official decree, they will be appointed by government officials and have a purely advisory role.

Detractors of the far-right administration say new policies are leaving aside drug prevention and treatment and focusing too much on law enforcement.

In May, senators passed a bill backed by Bolsonaro that allowed forced rehabilitation for drug users upon the recommendation of a relative or a public health official. Until then, a user in Brazil had to agree to hospitalization.

The bill also raised to eight years from five the minimum penalty for traffickers who lead criminal organizations.

Bolsonaro ran a tough-on-crime campaign, vowing to curb violence at all cost. He is a fervent opponent of drug policy liberalization.

On the day his administration celebrated 100 days in power, the president signed a decree that would shut down dozens of federal councils, committees and forums. Bolsonaro said the move would allow significant savings but did specify how much money the government was hoping to save.

The Federal Supreme Court quickly weighed in, limiting the president’s action to committees and councils that were not created by law but decrees.

So far, Bolsonaro has managed to downsize several councils that he could not make disappear, trimming the influence of its independent members.

In May, the president slashed the size of a body that oversees environmental policy from 100 to 21.

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