updated 8/26/2006 11:07:02 PM ET 2006-08-27T03:07:02

Drug users who don't engage in dealing will no longer be sent to prison under a new drug law now in effect across Brazil, officials said Friday.

The law, which went into effect Thursday, prohibits the imprisonment of people caught with small quantities of narcotics for personal use and instead subjects them to the alternative penalties like community service or required drug treatment, the justice ministry's press office said.

National Anti-drug Secretary Paulo Roberto Uchoa told reporters in Brasilia, the nation's capital, that thanks to the new law drug users will no longer be "persecuted by society."

The law does not, however, specify how much is a "small quantity" leaving that up to the discretion of police and judges.

If police arrested someone in possession of drugs for personal use, they will now only be required to sign an agreement to report for sentencing at a future date, before being freed.

Cocaine and marijuana use is fairly widespread in many Brazilian cities where drug gangs rule the hillside shantytowns and frequently battle for control of lucrative dealing spots.

Authorities also report an upswing in Ecstasy use, mostly among middle class youth.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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