As Brazil busies itself with preparations for the soccer World Cup next year and the Olympics two years later, the country is trying to figure out how to deal with a crippling crack epidemic that is seizing cities all over the nation of nearly 200 million.
The cracklands of Brazil—or “cracolandias”—are the subject of intriguing reports by correspondent Juan Forero in the Washington Post and on NPR.
The epidemic has wrought scenes of skinny, cracked-out addicts roaming the streets of cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo after dark desperately searching for their next fix. It is a tableau that might be familiar to Americans who recall the U.S. crack epidemic of the 1980’s. However, a key difference between the U.S. and Brazil is that Brazil is treating it as a healthcare crisis—as opposed to the criminal-justice obsessed U.S., which treated it as a criminal problem.
In an illustration of the Brazilian approach, President Dilma Rousseff instituted a $2 billion drug prevention and treatment program. In Sao Paulo, for instance, the city tries to get addicts to seek help at one of the 80 Psychosocial Attention Centers where addicts can receive a bed for the night.
“Like the crack wave that slammed the United States, the result here is the same — lives destroyed, families upended, neighborhoods made uninhabitable,” Forero wrote in the Washington Post.
According to an Associated Press report, a report by the Federal University of Sao Paolo says Brazil is the world’s largest consumer of both cocaine and crack. About 6 million adults, or 3 percent of Brazilians, have tried cocaine in some form.
Psychoanalyst Antonio Sergio Goncalves, who has worked with addicts for 27 years, told Forero the well-organized distribution of crack and its powerful addictive qualities are to blame for the epidemic.
“You feel instant ecstasy,” says Marcelo Cordeiro, a crack addict. “The only thing is the depression that comes when you don’t have it.”
The epidemic is not just plaguing the poor. Brazil’s booming new middle class offers a promising market for traffickers, drug-control experts say.
“In Brazil, we have a similar situation to what happened in the United States in the 1980s,” said Eloisa Arruda, who as secretary of justice for Sao Paulo state coordinates the region’s anti-drug policies. “There’s a big growth in crack use in public and people permanently in the streets consuming drugs day and night who are constantly supplied by traffickers.”
But according to Forero, among the key differences between the U.S. and Brazil is that crack hit U.S. cities that were in decline, destroying minority communities and leading to a record number of homicides in American cities between rival dealers. Although crack is illegal, Brazilian officials view the problem as a public health matter in which the state has a paramount role in helping break addictions.
“We don’t put drug users in prison,” said Leon Garcia, a senior expert on mental health and drugs at the federal Health Ministry. “We have alternative penalties for these people because we don’t believe prisons are the best places to treat them.”