A justice who sits on Brazil’s highest court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, has called for legalization of cannabis and cocaine to undercut the growing power of narco-gangs behind the wave of violence shaking South America’s largest nation. In comments picked up by Reuters, Justice Roberto Barroso, a Yale-educated jurist and professor of constitutional law, said that 50 years of drug war policies in Brazil have only fueled violence and bloated the country’s prison population and that time has come for an alternative.

“Unlike the United States and Europe where the problem lies in the impact drugs have on consumers, in Brazil, the problem lies in the power drug traffickers have over poor communities,” Barroso told reporters at the modernist high court building in Brasilia on Feb. 10. “I can assure you it is only a matter of time. Either we legalize marijuana now or we do it in the future after we have spent billions and incarcerated thousands.”

“I’m not sure if my proposal for legalization will work, but I’m sure that the War on Drugs has not,” Barroso added. “We cannot just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.”

A recent wave of deadly prison riots across Brazil has forced the issue into the public eye. A narco-economy has boomed in recent years, with Brazil now said by the United Nations to be the world’s second biggest cocaine consumer after the United States.

A 2006 law intended as a reform gave judges discretion to determine who is a drug consumer and who is a dealer, but it seems to have backfired—the prison population has surged 55 percent since then. With more than 622,000 inmates, Brazil now has the fourth largest prison population in the world (behind the U.S., China and Russia, a BBC factsheet informs us). One in every four male inmates was convicted on a drug offense, according to Justice Ministry figures..

There is growing fear of a “Colombianization” of Brazil’s narco wars—ironically, just as a tentative peace is coming to Colombia after generations of a brutal internal war. The week before Barroso spoke in Brasilia, defense and foreign ministry officials from Brazil and Colombia met in the Amazon port city of Manaus to discuss a joint crackdown on the drug and arms trade between the two countries.

Brazil’s foremost narco gang, the First Capital Command, is said to be recruiting members of Colombia’s FARC guerrilla army, who are bringing their weapons and deadly expertise across the border to work for new narco-bosses rather than lay down arms under the planned “demobilization.”

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