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Brazil’s Supreme Court decriminalises possession of cannabis for personal use

Brazil's Supreme Court has made a historic decision to decriminalise the possession of cannabis for personal use, marking a significant shift in the nation’s drug policy. This ruling, long-awaited by activists and legal scholars, could potentially alleviate the country's overcrowded prison system.

The Supreme Court's deliberations on this issue began in 2015, culminating in a majority vote in favour of decriminalisation. However, the justices still need to define the maximum quantity of cannabis deemed for personal use and determine when the ruling will take effect, with final decisions expected soon.

The decriminalisation ruling is restricted to cannabis possession for personal use, with drug sales remaining illegal. This decision aims to address the current legal ambiguities stemming from the 2006 law that imposed alternative penalties for small drug possession but failed to specify quantities. This vagueness has led to the incarceration of many individuals carrying minor amounts of cannabis, often as first-time offenders with no ties to organised crime.

As the Supreme Court moves towards finalising its decision, Brazil's Congress is advancing a proposal to tighten drug legislation. This includes a constitutional amendment criminalising possession of any quantity of illicit substances, which has already passed in the Senate and is making its way through the lower house. If enacted, this legislation would override the Supreme Court’s ruling, potentially leading to further legal challenges on constitutional grounds.

Brazil's decision follows a regional trend towards decriminalising drug possession for personal use, although each country has approached the issue differently. For example, Uruguay has fully legalised cannabis, while countries like Argentina and Colombia have decriminalised possession but not regulated its sale. Brazil's move is seen as aligning more closely with these progressive policies, although significant legislative hurdles remain.

The impact of drug-related incarcerations in Brazil has disproportionately affected people of colour, who make up over two-thirds of the prison population. Studies have shown that people of colour are more likely to be charged as traffickers than their white counterparts when caught with drugs. The Supreme Court's decision is viewed by many as a step towards addressing these racial disparities and shifting the focus of drug policy from criminalisation to public health.

Reactions to the ruling are mixed. Activists and some lawmakers celebrate it as a crucial advance in drug policy and public health. Others, including some legal experts, doubt it will significantly change the current situation without broader systemic reforms. Additionally, public opinion remains divided, with some citizens believing such decisions should be determined by a plebiscite rather than the courts or Congress.

Brazil's Supreme Court decision to decriminalise cannabis for personal use represents a landmark moment in the country's legal and social landscape. While the ruling is a step forward, the ongoing legislative efforts and societal debates underscore the complexity of drug policy reform in Brazil. As the nation navigates this pivotal change, the balance between judicial decisions, legislative actions, and public opinion will continue to shape the future of drug laws in Brazil.

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