Harm Reduction Advances at Stake in São Paulo Election Run-Off

Narco News pages are filled with reports on drug policy in Brazil, with a sizeable number of articles and commentaries on the advances made in the continent's largest city, São Paulo, under the leadership of city anti-AIDS coordinator Fabio Mesquita and his innovative programs - from clean needle exchange to decriminalizing drug users - to reduce the harms caused by drug use under prohibition, known as "harm reduction" policies.

But in municipal elections held yesterday, although the pro-drug-policy-reform Worker's Party of President Lula da Silva increased its number of mayoralties from 193 to 388 - and will pick up more in run-off votes to be held on October 31st - the continuation of a pro-reform administration in São Paulo is at risk... The business wire agency Bloomberg reports that international financial interests are drooling at the prospect that São Paulo Mayor Marta Suplicy, of Lula's "PT" party, might lose her October 31 run-off election to challenger Jose Serra.

``The Workers' Party looks like it's going to lose Sao Paulo but that's not Lula's fault -- it's Marta's,'' said (Lehman Brothers' "Latin American Strategist") John Welch in an interview from New York. ``Both sides can say they're winning and as an investor I'm comfortable with that. It'll help keep some of the more extreme trends in the Workers' Party at bay.''

Lost in the ideological knife-carving by such out-of-town market interests is the drug policy issue and the pioneering reforms in São Paulo during Suplicy's tenure (reforms that, the Wall Street boys conveniently ignore, apply their rhetoric on "free markets" to the one market they want to keep un-free: drugs). In Brazil, as elsewhere in Latin America, every single drug policy reform implemented has come from the political parties and leaders on the Left.

Here's what happened in São Paulo: the incumbent, Suplicy, got 36 percent and the challenger Serra got 44 percent, and now the two vie for the remaining 20 percent of the vote that went mainly to a third candidate.

According to this analysis by a Brazilian blogger at The Daily Kos, Serra "is running almost 20 points ahead in the run-off polls."

If that trend continues through October 31, the international harm reduction movement will likely lose its spotlight city in this hemisphere: the model that others soon followed to create policies and programs that cut against the damage done by prohibitionist drug policies.

There is possibly a ray of hope for reformers, although it is a slim shred: as Brazil's national health minister in the previous administration of president Henrique Cardoso, the mayoral challenger Serra at least did not stand in the way of anti-AIDS programs with harm reduction components. But nor did he display the tremendous leadership that his successors at the Health Ministry from the PT party have displayed, including by writing a bill to decriminalize drugs.

And so drug policy reformers in Brazil and internationally are on tenterhooks from now until October 31, awaiting the will of Paulista voters. If a new administration throws out Fabio Mesquita and his team from City Hall, the Harm Reduction movement will lose its flagship station in our América, which could have domino-like consequences in other cities.

Local sources say it ain't over 'til it's over: that the current administration may yet survive the October 31 election. But if not, and if a new administration doesn't stay the course and keep the home team doing the important work of harm reduction, the drug policy reform movement could see its first major loss of ground fought and won in recent years on the continent.

User login


About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.