The Global African: How Brazil’s War on Drugs Replicates Failed U.S. Policies

In this episode of The Global African, we hear from Dr. Carl Hart, neuroscientist at Columbia University, on how the Brazilian government has implemented repressive drug laws that ultimately repeat the same mistakes made in the U.S. – In the second half of the show we cover new changes to the Rwandan Constitution that could mean that President Kagame ends up staying on until 2034. What is driving the push for this term extension?

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Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about a potential change to the Rwandan Constitution that could extend President Kagame’s tenure. We’ll also talk about the parallels between the war on drugs in the United States and the war on drugs in Brazil.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us again.

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FLETCHER: Ronald Reagan and the United States Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse acts of 1986 and 1988, legislation aimed at addressing the drug problem in the United States. These laws were striking in their demonization of crack cocaine, setting penalties on crack that were–listen to this–100 times more severe than white powder cocaine, this despite the fact that the two are different forms of the same exact drug. The legislation also mandated that those found with possession of crack spend at least five years in prison, while making no such provision for powder cocaine. These policies called for a sharp increase in the hiring of law enforcement, helping to usher in what we now call the war on drugs.

Brazil appears to be following a similar path in their attempt to address its crack problem. The country recently allocated $4 billion towards this effort. This money is not going towards educating Brazilians on the similarities between crack and powder cocaine. As a result, many myths and stereotypes about drugs persist in Brazil as they did in the United States. However, much of the funds from this multi-billion dollar allocation are going to law enforcement.

Like the United States, Brazil’s black population faces systemic police violence. For instance, from 2003 to 2013, police in Rio de Janeiro killed on average 915 people each year, 70 percent of those victims being Afro-Brazilian. By not addressing social and economic conditions that give rise to drug-related problems, our next guest argues that the war on drugs merely sustains racial and economic issues.

On this segment, we’re going to look at the similarities between the so-called war on drugs and the expanding war on drugs that’s taking place in Brazil.

We’re joined by Professor Carl Hart of Columbia University. Professor Hart has published nearly 100 scientific articles in the area of neuropsychopharmacology. His recent book High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs in Society was the 2014 winner of the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Fast Company magazine named Professor Hart one of the most creative people for 2014.

Welcome to The Global African.

PROFESSOR CARL HART: Happy to be here, bro.

FLETCHER: So, Professor, I’d like to start by building on or asking you to explore some of the issues that you’ve raised about the distinction, or lack thereof, between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

HART: If we think about just–let’s just take a crack versus powder, and then we can go from there. In the United States in 1986, we passed the harshest drug laws that we’d ever seen in the country when it came to crack. We punish crack cocaine violations 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine violations, in part because we were told and we thought that crack cocaine was 100 times more addictive, more dangerous than powder cocaine. That’s what we thought. And we extended these laws in 1988.

Now fast forward several years later. The United States Sentencing Commission did a study. They had lawyers and physicians, psychologists, neuropsychopharmacologists all testify before them. They put together this comprehensive report. And what they determined was that crack and powder cocaine are the same drugs. And they determined this primarily from research like the kind that we conduct, where we bring people into the lab and we actually give them drugs as part of our research and carefully study the behavioral effects, the neuropharmacological effects of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine under double-blind conditions. And what we find and what other people have found is that the drugs produce identical effects.

So in 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended that we equate punishments of crack with powder, meaning that people would no longer be required to go to jail for a mandatory sentence of five years when they’re caught with small amounts of crack, because we found that to be unfair, and largely because what we also determined, the U.S. Sentencing Commission determined, was that 80 percent of the people who were convicted under these laws, under this tough law, were black people, even though black people did not make up the majority of crack cocaine users.

FLETCHER: But where did this come from, Doctor? I mean, where did the notion that it was more addictive, more dangerous, etc., where did that come from? Who was promoting that? And why?

HART: Well, what happened was that crack appeared in the United States on a large scale about 1985. And so it was a new form of cocaine that people just had not heard of. They’d never heard of the term crack. And so, when something new is introduced into the society, people are afraid, particularly when it’s a drug, and particularly when you can associate that drug with some despised group in the society. And what we saw on our newspapers–I think even today in the United States, the number-one show today I think remains the show–it was 48 Hours on Crack Street–CBS program. It remains the most highly watched television show in which people like Rudy Giuliani, when he was the DA in New York, you saw him going on undercover drug busts in places like Washington Heights here in New York. You saw all of these things happening on your television. And the users of this drug, based on the television, were primarily black, and they were young, and they seemed to have values that were not consistent with the mainstream society. And then, when that happens, people in Congress, particularly white folks around the country, this is foreign to them. We have to do something about it.

Remember I said crack didn’t appear really until, like, 1985. The highest unemployment rates in the United States were 1982. And then, when you look at murder rates, the highest murder rates in the country, it’s 1980, 1933, before crack appeared. But people–when we started talking about crack, all of this evidence–evidence goes out of the window. Emotion takes over. People start talking about one hit of the drug and you’re addicted. There is no drug in history, in the history of humans, where you have one hit and you’re addicted.

FLETCHER: Now let’s switch gears to Brazil. When did this crack epidemic start, and how were things unfolding in Brazil? How does it compare with us in the United States?

HART: Okay. The first thing: we have to be careful; it is not a crack epidemic. The rates of crack use are relatively low compared to cocaine use and other drugs.

FLETCHER: Okay. I stand corrected.

HART: Yeah. And in the United States, there never was an epidemic either, although people were saying that. Crack use rates were always relatively low compared to cocaine and other drugs.

Now, but let’s think about when did crack appear in Brazil. Crack appeared in Brazil in 2005. Now, in Brazil, just like in the United States, because the Brazilians watch us and our drug policy has been exported throughout South America–Columbia, a number of other places–so they are watching us and they’re looking to us for leadership on this issue. It appeared in 2005. Please recall, please understand that Brazil has a population–50 percent of their population is African. People don’t know that, in part because the Africans have been shut out. They represent less than 5 percent of the middle class. They’re not in the universities, certainly not in the professorships and those sorts of things. They’re just not there. And so we have to understand that they are poor. They are not educated. When I say not educated, I mean not high school; they don’t even have elementary school education. So it’s really bad. Now, so that means you’re going to have some poor-people problems. You’re going to have crime. You’re going to have unemployment. You’re going to have all of these sorts of things.

Now, crack has been blamed for those sorts of things in Brazil, just like they were in the United States. Understand this. In South America they have some of the highest murder rates. And Brazil, I think, ranks number three in South America in terms of murder rates. I think the only other countries that are higher than them is Venezuela and Honduras. They have always had these high murder rates, certainly since 1990. But the murder rates are being blamed on crack cocaine, which appeared in 2005. Black unemployment and poverty, all of these things are being blamed on crack when they had these problems long before crack even was introduced into the society. And so it’s the same situation, the same playbook as happened in the United States. They’re blaming crack for problems that the government has not dealt with. They’re blaming crack for the racial discrimination that exists in that society.

FLETCHER: So then are we looking at something–how can I put this? I’m trying to be fair. But is this a situation where there are forces in Brazil that are using this issue of crack as a way of distracting people away from looking at some of the systemic issues? Is it that orchestrated?

HART: I think what happens is that people say, we’re trying to do something about the problem, and we’re doing something about the problem by going after the crack, even though there are people like me saying, hold up, hold up; there are more efficient and more effective ways to deal with the problem, and that’s not crack. And people like me are being ignored, because it’s just simply easier to say you have a crack problem and then focus your efforts on the crack problem by hiring more police. And the same people benefit. Hire more police. Politicians look like they’re doing something. And then you also say you’re going to hire or put more money into treatment. And that’s not even an issue when you have basic needs that need to be met–education, employment. All of these basic needs will be more effective and more efficient in dealing with the issue. But they’re complicated, and that’s why people just ignore them.

FLETCHER: Alright. So in both the case of the United States and in Brazil, what do you think are the steps that need to be taken, and by whom? Let’s say, to begin, by shifting the narrative?

HART: Yeah.

FLETCHER: And what do we do?

HART: Well, let’s just start with the United States.

FLETCHER: Okay.

HART: In the United States every year we arrest 1.5 million people for drug-related issues. And 80 percent of those people are just for simple drug possession, just people caught with some drug that they might be using.

The first step that we can do, because we’re all concerned about this over-incarceration, this mass incarceration, and we’re all concerned about the disproportionate impact that it’s having on black people, especially black boys and men–when we think about our prison population, black men make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but damn near 40 percent of the prison population. We’re all concerned about that.

When you think about that, the thing that we can do immediately–presidents, Congress, they all have this within their power–they could simply decriminalize all drugs. That means that we will treat drug-related violations–possession, that sort of thing–just like we treat traffic violations: you might get a warning or you might get a fine, but you don’t go to jail, you don’t go to jail, you don’t get a criminal record. Portugal, the Czech Republic have already done this. Czech Republic, they’ve done this since late 1990s, Portugal since 2001. Both of those countries are happy with their policies. They don’t waste so much money on prison. And they have no interest in doing another policy. But they had a problem, and so this is how they dealt with it.

And it also changes the mindset of the police officers who, whenever there’s some issue–I mean, Dave Chapelle, the comedian, he has this one skit where he’s just talking about, like, when police kill someone accidentally, particularly black people, they’d be like, oh, we’ll just sprinkle some crack over them and then call it a wrap. And so that mindset has to change where people blame drugs for anything. I mean, people who mean well, they say, oh, the kids are doing well, they’re in school, they’re not on drugs. So you just use the drug thing as a default when in fact drugs are not the problem.

FLETCHER: One wonders whether there can be this shift in narrative without somehow very directly hitting at race, because it feels that as long–you know, our parents have said this–as long as the problem is hitting us, it is something that faces two prospects. One is demonization, as you said. The other is marginalization. It’s sort of contained in the barbaric ghettos.

HART: If we think about how our narrative has changed, such that we’re asking people to have more treatment or put more money into treatment, and you’re showing all of these poor white people, I’m sympathetic in that I’m glad that people can get the help that they need. That’s very important. But we should not misunderstand what’s really happening. When we think about Ohio, Vermont, particularly Vermont, the governor of Vermont last year spent his state of the state address, entire state of the state address, addressing this heroin issue. And people gave him praise for being forward-thinking, open-minded, and those sorts of thing.

Now, when you think about the people who are using heroin there, who they’re calling the users, they’re white, of course. But if you read the newspapers out of Vermont and you read carefully and you see who they are arresting for heroin, where people are advocating stronger and longer sentences for heroin dealers, they are black and Hispanic, and they’re coming up from New York, they’re saying. So we’re going to have the same result, no matter who the face is, when it comes to enforcing the law. There are states that are advocating for stronger penalties for those people for selling, and those people will always be the people who are despised in this society. And in some case, they are poor white people. But they’re always going to be the–they’re going to pay the price. So despite this sort of open-minded liberal language that they’re using, it’s going to be bad for poor people, as it always is when they start talking about drugs.

FLETCHER: Dr. Carl Hart, thank you immensely for joining us on The Global African.

HART: Thank you for having me, bro.

FLETCHER: Thank you very much for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: On October 29, Rwanda’s lower house of Parliament agreed to adopt a proposed amendment to their 2003 constitution, potentially allowing President Paul Kagame to run for another term. Currently, the Rwandan Constitution only allows for two seven-year terms. Kagame’s second term is set to end in 2017. But new changes to the Constitution could mean that the Rwandan president ends up staying in office until–hold on to your hat–2034. If the proposed changes are put into law, Rwanda would join Burundi and the Republic of the Congo as recent African nations to allow term extensions for their leaders.

We’re joined for this segment by Claude Gatebuke, who is a Rwandan civil war survivor, a survivor of the 1994 genocide, a human rights advocate. He’s also the executive director and cofounder of the African Great Lakes Action Network, an organization focused on justice, peace, and prosperity in the Great Lakes region of Africa. He is based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Thank you very much for joining us on The Global African.

CLAUDE GATEBUKE: Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: Our pleasure.

I wanted to start off by the most immediate issue, the announcement that a lower house in Rwanda voted to begin a process that could extend the administration, or the length of the administration, of President Kagame. And I’d appreciate if you could explain to us where is this coming from. And what do you see as the implications?

GATEBUKE: There is a reason for this extension. Many have not heard that the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has committed a lot of atrocities over the last 25 years since the initial invasion of Rwanda, the atrocities both inside of Rwanda and also outside of Rwanda in the Congo, and extrajudicial killings of Rwandan nationals who are opponents of the government all over the globe. There are a number of high-ranking military officers in Rwanda who are wanted in various countries. In fact, one was arrested in London this summer and spent almost two months–this is the chief of intelligence in Rwanda who was put in jail in London. And the extradition to Spain, where he’s wanted, did not take place. However, he is still wanted for terrorism and other acts that he’s committed in Rwanda. And this is under the ruling party and President Kagame. And Paul Kagame has not been indicted in any of the international cases because he is a sitting head of the state.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you this, just to clarify. In much of the rest of the world, President Kagame is looked at as a hero, the leader of the RPF in opposition to the genocide that took place in ’94, as the Rwandans played a decisive role in the overthrow of the notorious Mobutu regime in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Can you put this all together for us?

GATEBUKE: So this is where it comes together. There is a recent report by Human Rights Watch demonstrating how homeless people, street children, and other poor people are removed from the streets of Kigali, the capital in Rwanda, and taken to jail and incarcerated so that they can keep a clean image of the city. There were also the report in 2010 in The New York Times of the children, street children, who had been rounded up and sent to the Iwawa Island in Lake Kivu. And they are imprisoned there to keep the city clean.

And to your point on the removal of President Mobutu of Zaire (and now DRC), that was just a replacement of a friendly tyrant by a new and younger generation of friendly tyrants. If you remember the record of President Mobutu, he didn’t only rule the country for 32 years and basically bankrupt the country and was extremely repressive, but he also supported apartheid South Africa, which also the United States supported. In fact, President Mandela was on the list of terrorists up until recent years. So President Mobutu was a puppet of Western countries, especially the U.S., the U.K., and France.

And so Kagame came, and Museveni, as the younger and newer Mobutus of the region. And what he did was provide a different tyrant to continue to support the interests of especially multinational mining companies that are operating in the Congo and exploiting the people of the Congo when Mobutu was getting old and he was no longer of use.

And today, the invasion of the Congo has produced more casualties than President Mobutu ever was able to achieve. The conflict in the Congo has produced more than 5 million innocent dead people, and the majority of those people are children under the age of five. That is a little-known fact. It’s the most underreported–the deadliest conflict since World War II, but the most underreported conflict when you look at the human casualty.

FLETCHER: In both the cases of Uganda and Rwanda, the movements that were led by President Museveni in Uganda and Kagame, in initial stages, certainly in the 1980s, Museveni and the National Resistance Army that succeeded in winning power had reputations for being very progressive, introducing very progressive changes to Uganda. The RPF was initially seen as a revolutionary force that had a collective leadership. I’m trying to understand what happened. I mean, how did this unfold or devolve, depending on your point of view?

GATEBUKE: I think as time goes, more and more of us realize that what were the stated goals of these movements, both the NRM in Uganda and the RPF in Rwanda, were not necessarily the real intentions of the two movements. For example, it’s emerging more and more in recent years, the atrocities committed by the NRM in the Luwero Triangle, where people were massacred and displayed on the streets or in public to show that the opponents of the NRM were actually committing these atrocities. This is a technique that was used by Museveni and his fighters. There is also northern Uganda, where villages have been wiped out both by the LRA, but also by the Ugandan security forces. And then it gets worse where, if you remember, when Museveni came to power, he said the problem in Africa is presidents who would not leave power. And he has been president for 29 years now and is looking to extend his stay in power.

And so when you come into a country and you commit all these atrocities, you pretty much paint yourself in a corner and you put yourself in a spot where you don’t want to face accountability. And that’s what’s happened to both the RPF and the NRM in Rwanda from 1990 to 1994, prior to the genocide. The RPF would attack villages. They would call people to meetings, a whole village, and lure them with promises of providing food, and also giving them security briefings. The people would get to the meetings, hundreds of people, and they would start launching grenades into those crowds, and some of the people were killed by hand weapons. And so there were people living who had those testimonies even prior to 1994, when the genocide took place. And then fast-forward to post genocide, where the RPF went into the refugee camps in Congo and wiped out as many refugees as possible, killing over 200,000 Rwandan nationals.

In Rwanda there is a long string of critics who have either been killed, exiled, or jailed. In fact, Rwanda’s known as a very progressive country that has the largest number of women in parliament in the world, the largest percentage. However, the only woman to run against the president of Rwanda, the only woman who had a legitimate chance of running and beating, potentially beating, the president of Rwanda was put in jail. She’s serving 15 years. This is Mrs. Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza of the FDU-INKINGI Party. Just last week, she made five years in prison for simply disagreeing with the government in its official narrative of the genocide, where victims of war crimes and other mass atrocities committed by the RPF are not recognized. And so she’s in prison today.

And so, to me, what happened is they’ve tried to keep a lid on the crimes that they’ve committed, and, unfortunately, it’s just not working when it comes to the people who either witnessed those things or who saw those things occur.

FLETCHER: Mr. Gatebuke, thank you very much for joining us for The Global African. Really appreciate your time.

GATEBUKE: Thank you.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.

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