Brazil tackles crack epidemic

People suspected of using crack gather at a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The South American country began experiencing a public-health emergency in recent years as demand for crack boomed and open-air “cracolandias,” or crack lands, popped up in the sprawling urban centers of Rio and Sao Paulo. Enlarge photo

Felipe Dana/Associated Press file photo

People suspected of using crack gather at a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The South American country began experiencing a public-health emergency in recent years as demand for crack boomed and open-air “cracolandias,” or crack lands, popped up in the sprawling urban centers of Rio and Sao Paulo.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Bobo has a method: Cocaine gets him through the day, when he cruises with a wheelbarrow around a slum on Rio’s west side, sorting through trash for recyclables to sell. At night, he turns the day’s profit into crack.

“Sometimes I don’t sleep at all; I’m up 24 hours,” says Bobo, a former soldier who doesn’t use his given name for safety reasons. “I work to support my addiction, but I only use crack at night. That drug takes my mind away. I lose all notion of what I’m doing.”

Bobo says balancing crack with cocaine keeps him working and sane. On the shantytown’s streets, life can be hell: Addicts unable to strike Bobo’s precarious balance use crack day and night, begging, stealing, prostituting themselves and picking through trash to make enough for the next hit. For them, there’s no going home, no job, nothing but the drug.

With a boom in crack use during the last decade, Brazilian authorities are struggling to stop the drug’s spread, sparking a debate about the legality and efficiency of forcibly interning users. Brazil today is the world’s largest consumer of both cocaine and its crack derivative, according to the Federal University of Sao Paolo. About 6 million adults, or 3 percent of Brazilians, have tried cocaine in some form.

Rio de Janeiro has taken the lead in trying to help the burgeoning number of users with an approach that city leaders call proactive, but critics pan as unnecessarily aggressive. As of May 2011, users living in the streets have been scooped up in pre-dawn raids by teams led by the city’s welfare department in conjunction with police and health-care workers. By Dec. 5, 582 people had been picked up, including 734 children.

The sight is gut-wrenching. While some people go meekly, many fight, cry, scream out in desperation in their altered states. Once they’re gone, their ratty mattresses, pans, sweaters and few other possessions are swept up by a garbage removal company.

Adults can’t be forced to stay in treatment, and most leave the shelters within three days. But children are kept in treatment against their will or returned to parents if they have a family. In December, 119 children were being held in specialized treatment units.

Demand for crack has boomed in recent years and open-air “cracolandias,” or “crack lands,” popped up in the urban centers of Rio and Sao Paulo, with hundreds of users gathering to smoke the drug. The federal government announced in early 2012 that more than $2 billion would be spent to fight the epidemic, allotting money to train health-care workers, buy thousands of hospital and shelter beds, and create transitional centers for recovering users.

Ethel Vieira, a psychologist on the raid team, thinks their persistence is paying off.

“Initially, they’d run away, react aggressively, throw rocks,” she said of users. “Now most of them understand our intention is to help, to give them a chance to leave the street and to connect with the public-health network.”