SAO PAULO -- Brazil's Senate approved a series of drug policy changes designed to toughen penalties for traffickers and require users to undergo rehabilitation at private or religious centers, acting ahead of a Supreme Court decision on the decriminalization of marijuana consumption and possession.
The bill would raise to eight years from five the minimum penalty for traffickers who lead criminal organizations. In addition, it would reinforce the role of therapeutic communities that in Brazil often are linked to religious institutions, which can receive private donations and public funding to support their activities.
The legislation approved Wednesday has the approval of the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who must sign the measure for it to become law. It already was passed by Congress' lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.
Specialists in drug policy criticized the changes, saying the legislation is moving Brazil in the opposite direction of a trend to discourage drug consumption and treat addiction by approaching the matter as a health issue.
"It is a perfect example of how this government seeks to resolve complex issues with simple and wrong solutions," said Leon Ribeiro, a public health psychiatrist and former member of Brazil's National Secretariat for Drug Policy.
Ribeiro especially questioned the introduction of involuntary rehabilitation for drug users. Until now, a user in Brazil had to agree to hospitalization, but the new policy would allow forced hospitalization upon the recommendation of a relative or, a public health official. Once committed, the person could be discharged from treatment only with the approval of health professionals.
Approaches "of this kind have failed and damaged the credibility of health professionals, with drug users wanting to run away from them. They're trying to use punishment and the loss of freedom as a solution for those who consume drugs," Ribeiro said.
Luis Fernando Tófoli, a professor at University of Campinas in Sao Paulo and a board member at the Brazilian Platform for Drug Policy, is another critic. "There is a big risk that people will think that treatment should be focused only on therapeutic communities, which are outside the health system and get little supervision," he said.
Although the matters aren't linked, the government is hoping the legislation's passage will influence the Supreme Court's decision on whether Brazilians have a constitutional right to possess and consume marijuana. The ruling is expected June 5.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, a lawmaker and son of the president, said earlier this week that "if the bill is not approved, there is a serious risk that the Federal Supreme Court will liberalize drugs in Brazil shortly."
So far, three of the court's 11 judges have spoken in favor of decriminalizing marijuana possession for personal use.
Bolsonaro, who is a fervent opponent of drug liberalization, including decriminalizing marijuana, issued a "National Drug Policy" decree last month that critics said puts the focus on a greater repression of trafficking.