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Refazenda and Drug Policy in the Americas

About twenty years ago, during a trip home to New Mexico I ran into an old friend from high school. When we got around to talking about work, she told me that she was at a non-profit in Washington D.C., advocating for the legalization of marijuana. I had never really heard anyone talk seriously about legalizing pot, and the fact that my friend was making a career doing that just about blew my mind. Fast forward to January 1, 2020: Illinois (where I now live) becomes the latest state to make cannabis legal.

My how things have changed. And, as some dispiriting data and trends suggest, my how they have not.

If I had known more about Gilberto Gil when I ran into my friend, I might not have been so surprised about what she was doing. Or, at least, I might have seen in her work a continuation of a larger global movement in which Gil had played a small, but inspiring part during the 1970’s, and which has swept through the United States with remarkable force in recent years.

In 1976, soon after wrapping up a long tour that launched Refazenda, Gil was arrested for marijuana possession, a charge that led to a highly publicized trial. Gil publicly questioned why Brazil punished drug use with an approach that was equal parts ferocious and ineffective. (Perhaps because of his profile, Gil avoided prison, though he was forced to spend time in a psychiatric ward.)  The police officer who arrested Gil told an interviewer that to protect society from drugs, he “wouldn’t go so far as to propose the death penalty” but did believe that mandatory life sentences for traffickers and, if it were only possible, physical punishment for users, were in order.  “You have to cut it out at the root,” he said. Borne of psychedelic, hippie, counter-culture forces, Refazenda provides a provocative counterpoint to his police foil, whose words would almost seem to be caricature if nearly identical ones had not fueled state-sponsored drug wars in the U.S. and Brazil and many points between. Like Amiri Baraka’s (then LeRoi Jones) “changing same,” those wars have disproportionately targeted people of color, a trend that stubbornly persists even as drug laws become ostensibly more rational and humane.

In Illinois, I teach Refazenda in a class on the history of black music.  Some students are simply drawn to the album’s trippy feel and musical artistry.  Others connect it to another “document” we consider: Jay Z’s Op-Doc “The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail,” a pithy critiques of the racism and hypocrisy baked into U.S. drug policy.

Refazenda, to be sure, does not advocate for legalization.  Gil wrote and recorded the album several years after returning from exile imposed by the military, which controlled Brazil with a violent, repressive dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985.  Nonetheless, as I argue in the book, Refazenda proposes a dramatic rethinking of society.  My students who connect the album to Jay-Z’s Op-Doc see in both a challenge to the status quo.

One of Jay-Z’s most devastating points is that in the U.S. legalization has done little to reverse the racial disparities that have always been part and parcel of drug policy and enforcement.  While white venture capitalists now make money hand over fist in legalized pot industries, people of color are shut out, some prohibited from owning dispensaries because of prior convictions for “charges caught by poor people who sold drugs for a living, but are now prohibited from participating in one of the fastest growing economies.”  In Brazil, drug legislation and its casualties have unfolded differently than in the U.S., but with familiar results.  In both places, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

In 2006, Brazil passed new legislation governing drug laws, including an apparently progressive directive that individual possession would not be punished with prison time (though other penalties could be applied.) The reality has been more problematic.  While possession theoretically goes unpunished, trafficking remains illegal, and though the impetus for proving that someone is a dealer lies, in theory, with the state, in reality it has fallen on other shoulders. 

Overwhelmingly, those shoulders tend to be dark-skinned and belonging to women.  After 2006, drug-related arrests didn’t fall—they sky-rocketed, initiating an era of what one expert calls “super-incarceration.”  Between 2006 and 2014, Brazil’s prison population grew by more than fifty percent.  The number of women in prison grew during same time by more than eighty percent, with a stunning 290% increase in sentences among women for drug-related charges.  More than a decade after the apparent opening in 2006, more than three of every five women in prison in Brazil were there for drugs. 

Though by different means, in Brazil the supposed liberalization of drug policy has, as in the U.S. and elsewhere, effectively legitimized drug use and sale for, by, and to the privileged while continuing to disenfranchise poor people of color.  As the Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania, an advocacy group for women in prison, put it, in Brazil and across the Americas, apparently liberal drug policies of the twenty-first century have created markets that are “lucrative for a few” and criminal for others.

When Gil wrote Refazenda and voiced his belief that arcane drug laws should be revised, he might not have imagined what things would look like forty-odd years later.  To me, one of the most exciting aspects of the album is the way its music, lyrics, and historical context can move you to think in ways that you previously could not have imagined.  The album challenges you to conceptualize a new world—not necessarily a utopia, but a remade, better version of the current one.  It is remarkable, if not necessarily surprising, that the further we seem to travel from the 1970’s, when the wars on drugs were beginning and when Gil was creating Refazenda, the more familiar the terrain looks.  Though there is reason to be optimistic about recent laws, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that despite all the changes, some things remain the same.

Gilberto Gil’s Refazenda, by Marc A. Hertzman, is out this Thursday! Order your copy today to learn more about this amazing artist and his lasting legacy.

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