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Study analyses the prohibition of drugs as means of social criminalisation policy

To researcher, cannabis prohibition is a direct criminalisation of black people
Study analyses the prohibition of drugs as means of social criminalisation policy

Street events, such the The Global Marijuana March (GMM) in São Paulo gathers thousands of people that ask for the legalisation of cannabis – Photo: (CC BY-SA) Fora do Eixo

Text: Carolina Golenia

Drugs prohibition is a public policy imposed by the Brazilian government in the early 20th century. In order to change the idea that drugs have always been forbidden, Jonas Lunardon in his Master’s dissertation defended at UFRGS Postgraduate Programme in Political Sciences presents how this policy was created.

Once slavery came to an end, one way of subduing black culture was by means of social criminalisation as a process to maintain the status quo in Brazil and all over the world. “Drugs prohibition is an issue of social exclusion that is directly aimed at black people,” Lunardon states.

In the beginning of the Brazilian dictatorship period (1964-1985), it was common for newspapers to carry cannabis cigarettes advertisements, such as Grimault publicity (image below).  At the time the focus was on the use of cannabis for health purposes: “medical authorities recommend it for the treatment of lungs diseases, hayfever and laryngitis.” Additionally, some advertisements produced during the Roosevelt’s administration (1942) show that, given its industrial potential to be transformed into oil and fiber, cannabis production was encouraged in several regions of United States as part of the war supply  industry.

With the end of slavery, and black people becoming part of society, Brazil was the first country to include cannabis into a dangerous substances list. Over time, black people managed to make their culture and religious elements become more relevant within social fabric. “When this happens, the government starts to criminalise such cultural elements. Cannabis, like samba, Umbanda[1], and capoeira, is one of such elements” Lunardon says. Eventually,  some of these elements were legalised and even used in governmental advertisements, which did not occur with cannabis. “It is an element that serves as stigma, which ultimately serves as a tool to criminalise this culture.” He continues.

Other areas such as economics, medical, sanitation, and public health  also encouraged prohibition. “The economic interest, above all, was essential at the time to protect industries  such as textile and oil, among others. It was important to know that competition would not be superseded. Cannabis fiber and the oils extracted from it were used for this  matter,” Lunardon highlights.

To understand this scenario, it is important to mention a historical fact. During Getúlio Vargas’ administration (1930-1945), a national security system was created, which included the Custom, Toxic and Misdemeanours Station (DCTM) in order to help manage crimes of moral turpitude. “There is an institutionality dedicated to repress certain components of black culture. According to Salo de Carvalho [Penal Law Professor at UFRGS], when the State decides to criminalise this subculture (or deviant culture, or counterculture) it incriminates its elements in order to, through them, be able to repress the population. In this scenario, cannabis is the remaining element of this criminalisation”, Lunardon points out.

Prohibition has occurred throughout the history of human civilisation such as Napoleon conquering Egypt and forbidding some of the native people practices. This repression is widely used by oppressor over history.


Part of Lunardon’s research is based on Foucault’s theory that deals with discipline and biopolitics. “With the emergence of the Modern State, with the creation of large urban centers, this State has to deal with the population. Foucault deconstructs and analyses many institutions that serve as domain systems such as school and education. Working with biopolitics, he analyses how the State relies on the control of body and consciousness.”

Lunardon points out that we should see power and State as positive and productive, rather than just repressive and negative. “This power creates relations, ways of being and ways of living  that in order to produce will require both social and political tools, creating ways of living that work with the State that we live in. Drugs prohibition is one of these structural tools.”

The researcher also explains the Elite Theory in which political and economic elites are in the same level. “Business activity and social and moral interests join the conservative white political elite in countries such as Brazil and United States. These areas connect with each other creating public policies sponsored by several sectors.”


War on drugs

Lunardon asserts that we understand the drug issue as normal and natural. “This occurs with other drugs as well, which go against the productive and moral system such as the psychedelics, which have a higher potential  for breaking various  medical paradigms. These drugs are withheld because they are part of counterculture elements, thus being part of society’s discipline expectation.”

The researcher highlights that we should pay attention to the assumption that the war on drugs did not work. “The speech which was sold about reducing usage, stopping trafficking and creating a morally disciplined and healthy society – has not worked. If we treat the war on drugs as a policy of criminalisation, then it has worked. There is still a huge scenario of exclusion within society. With a methodologically rigid study, it shows that prohibition and its related penalties  have not worked and will never work; and this fuels a system of  violence and exclusion.”


Legalising Drugs

Lunardon explains that legalising drugs means regulating  them. “It’s not about legalising to do ‘whatever you want’. It’s important to regulate social and health care, creating a health system that is ready to deal with chemical dependents as well.”

By discussing the matter symbolically and philosophically, it would make it possible to  bring this subject matter into light. “We allocate the knowledge on drug use to some sub-world. These relations are regulated on one hand by the people who participate in this counterculture and create this group movement; on the other hand, by all this crime and trafficking world which does not care about social and health topics”, says Lunardon. “When we consciously discuss it, we can create a number of different ways to deal with this and further discuss how to create public policies to legalise drugs.”

Lunardon uses cannabis as an example: “Creating a farming group system, a home-grown and consumption group is the first step towards establishing a regulatory system. I am  not against selling cannabis in particular places and for adults, but I am against the absurd advertisements that we watch on TV such as beer advertising with women in bikinis. There are a number of studies on the cannabis market, how we raise money and reinvest it in health and education structures.” Lunardon highlights that prohibition of drugs is a public health issue, “because by forbidding drugs, we send chemical dependent to jail. Maybe breaking this violent cycle means providing other non-criminal ways of treatment.”

He also released a book with his research results last year. “The last part of my book is about violence in a subjective way, related to unprivileged black youth. By conducting  this study I realised that the existing drug policy is perhaps the most visible tool to maintain this violent scenario.”

Translated by Joana da Silveira de Souza under the supervision of Professor Márcia Moura da Silva (UFRGS)

Text in Portuguese available at:

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