"In Brazil, as in the U.S., all judges are allowed to incidentally declare the unconstitutionality of a law. That is what I did concerning drug prohibition."
Even in the earliest days of her career in criminal justice, as a public defender working in Rio de Janeiro in 1979, Maria Lucia Karam was interested in helping those whose criminality was a product not of malice but of being subject to adverse circumstances, with designs on doing what she could to break the vicious cycles in which many of the least fortunate in society get caught. "In short, I tried to help them escape a punishment that would put them in prison and would destroy their lives and the lives of their families."
By 1982 Maria had already become a judge, feeling that from the bench she would have more leverage to help her fellow Brazilians. She worked in the criminal courts for eight years, where she routinely cleared defendants of drug-possession charges on the grounds that laws criminalizing behavior that does not affect the rights and freedoms of others is unconstitutional. Unfortunately, her beliefs displeased the powers-that-be, and in 1990 she was transferred to family court. In 2000 Maria retired so as to more fully dedicate herself to writing and lecturing. Since 1990 she has published several books and essays, much of her work being on the ills and failures of drug prohibition.
From her student days it was clear to Maria that prohibition was detrimental to both individuals and to society as a whole - and her experience in the judiciary only deepened this conviction. She cites prison overcrowding, increased police brutality, and systematized State disrespect for civil liberties as just three of the many repercussions of prohibition. As she notes, "The boundless expansion of the punishing power within democratic States, which is always stimulated by the 'War on Drugs,' dangerously gets these democratic States nearer to totalitarian States." She also points out prohibition's inherent futility. "The intervention of the criminal-justice system, as usual, does not control anything - and in this particular case just consigns the drug market (which, as reality and history demonstrate, will not disappear, no matter if drugs are legal or illegal) to criminalized actors that are not submitted to any control or regulation of their economic activities."