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Crack addicts consume the drug on a street in Sao Paulo March 20, 2012. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)
Crack addicts consume the drug on a street in Sao Paulo March 20, 2012. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

Crack cocaine is king in Brazil: What Sao Paulo is doing about it Add to ...

The people who live here call it Cracolândia: a treeless few blocks in the heart of Sao Paulo, South America’s biggest city. The name is a dark homage to Disney – a place, they say, where you go to do what you want.

But there is no magic in this kingdom: Instead there are a few hundred people living in the ruins of old high-rises, and on the sidewalks, their only furniture stained mattresses and piles of rags. Their skin is a uniform charcoal colour, a mix of sunburn and years and years of dirt. In the bright sun of midday, they sit on the curbstones, smoking crack through jury-rigged pipes, exchanging muted conversation and the occasional harsh burst of laughter. The wind blows up a funnel of trash and plastic bags; they watch unmoving as it cyclones around them.

Cracolândia has been here for 15 years, by the best guess of its denizens. Its population hovered around 1,500. And until a few months ago, life here followed a grim routine. The police swept in every so often, arresting some of the addicts and chasing others off; they would make a desperate shambling parade, clutching their grimy possessions and bedrolls, walking the city streets for a day or two until law enforcement turned its attention elsewhere and they could return to their familiar sidewalks.

Then, late last year, the city launched a bold new policy to reclaim Cracolândia in typical Brazilian style: with little empirical basis, but a conviction that citizens in an emerging superpower deserved better. The initiative is called Braços Abertos (Open Arms) and is a many-pronged effort to house and feed and employ addicts, to end their “social exclusion” in an effort to help get them off drugs.

“These people are the most miserable of the miserable,” says Myres Cavalcanti, co-ordinator of Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drugs for the city of Sao Paulo. “And the state of Brazil has the money to take care of them.”

Brazil has an estimated one million crack users, the largest population in the world, and it has tried a dozen different ways to tackle its drug problem, with little to show for it. The question in Sao Paulo today: Can a program built on gut instinct and grit turn things around?

Healing through weeding

It has been decades since North Americans worried about the urban blight caused by crack. Opioids and methamphetamine draw the headlines (and the bulk of the public-health response). But as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has made clear, the cheap and trashy iteration of cocaine never went away: It remains a widely available street drug in North as well as South America.

In Brazil, however, crack isn’t just widely available. Crack is king.

Partly because of the proximity to supply (a vast, porous border with producing nations Colombia, Bolivia and Peru), cocaine has long dominated the drug market here; there is comparatively little use of injectable opioids such as heroin. And crack is the easy-to-produce high best targeted for Brazil’s largely low-income drug users (priced at about $2 a hit compared to $40 for heroin). The gangs rooted in Brazil’s anarchic prisons run the trade.

Every big ciy now has a Cracolândia, or several. None have dawn attention like the original in Sao Paulo, though – located right in the heart of the country’s business and cultural capital. The last time addicts came under sustained police harassment, they protested by setting up camp outside Sao Paulo’s premiere concert hall, so that tuxedoed gentry had to step over them on their way into the sympthony. Middle-class residents have also claimed Cracolândia was driving up crime. Police statistics don’t entirely bear that out, but almost everyone was afraid to walk through the area.

All told, alcohol causes more social and property damage in Sao Paulo, Ms. Calvacanti says, but it was this encampment that had everyone wringing their hands about drugs.

“It’s shocking: ‘How can you have a Cracolândia in the middle of a city, with people using drugs right there?’” she says. “It’s like a lost neighbourhood in the heart of the city.”

Brazil has a federal anti-crack policy (“Crack Can be Beaten”). Its focus has been public education to discourage people from starting to use, and law enforcement targeting those selling drugs; the government funded new beds for in-patient treatment in psychiatric facilities.

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