Sonia Francine Demands Cognitive Liberty
(c) Reuters, Nov. 20, 2001, By Carlos A. DeJuana, 
under title "Brazil TV host's candor stirs marijuana debate"

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Nov 20 (Reuters) - A popular Brazilian television host who was fired for admitting she occasionally smoked marijuana was unrepentant on Tuesday, saying she was not a criminal as her dismissal re-ignited national debate on pot laws.

Sonia Francine, Brazil's top female soccer commentator and a former MTV presenter, was fired late Monday by publicly funded TV Cultura, which said it could not allow one of its employees to promote illegal acts. Francine, popularly known as Soninha, hosted a talk show geared at adolescents.

She and three other Brazilians appeared on the cover of news magazine Epoca this weekend and billboard advertisements across the country beside the headline "I Smoke Marijuana." The cover story highlighted the recreational use of pot among professionals and Brazilians' sometimes conservative attitudes toward its use.

"I am not a pothead, I am the same person I was before," the 34-year-old mother of three said on Tuesday on a talk show.

"But the fact that a person consumes a substance should not turn that person into a criminal, even if that substance is bad for them or is bad for their health," said Francine, who says she smokes very little, usually at parties or friends' homes.

Marijuana use is illegal in Brazil although experts say it is becoming more common, especially among adolescents.

According to an estimate by the Brazilian government cited in a U.N. report on world drug use, 7.7 percent of Brazilians use cannabis, compared to 9 percent in the United Kingdom and 8.9 percent in the United States.

Other magazines have also recently run stories on marijuana use, including one in the weekly Veja entitled "My dad smokes grass with me," and another in which a Sao Paulo city official called for debate on the medicinal use of cannabis.

Meanwhile, as Francine's plight became the focus of debate on daytime talk shows and spot polls, experts said one problem in dealing with marijuana use was the country's strict 1976 law that adheres to a stricter U.S. model instead of a more liberal stance like the Netherlands or Portugal, which have decriminalized personal use.

"Brazil is moving in the opposite direction of the modern approaches," said Walter Maierovitch, Brazil's first drug czar who now heads a crime research center in Sao Paulo.

"What predominates is prohibition and bad information."

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