Brazilian health officials say an epidemic is taking hold — an outbreak of crack cocaine use nationwide, from the major cities on the coast to places deep in the Amazon.
It’s an image at odds with the one Brazil wants to project as the country prepares to host soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later. But the problem has become too big to ignore.
The Luz district of central Sao Paulo was once grand, with its old train station and opulent buildings. Now, this neighborhood is known as Cracolandia — Crackland.
The opening months of 2012 have witnessed an unprecedented debate across Latin America on alternatives to the so-called war on drugs. The sitting presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama are actively exploring decriminalization, regulation and harm reduction as a means of ending spiraling violence associated with drug trafficking. What was once considered to be heresy is now going mainstream.
And while the debate has its detractors, it is definitely catching on. This weekend, 34 heads of state will gather at the sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. For the first time since the war on drugs was launched more than four decades ago, leaders will discuss more humane approaches to dealing with the causes and symptoms of the illegal drug trade. Many privately recognize that the war has failed: the production and consumption of drugs continues unabated and efforts to control illicit markets have instead resulted in a surge in violence.
Every president in the western hemisphere acknowledges that the costs of the war on drugs have been devastating. With just 9 percent of the world’s population, Latin America exhibits more than 30 percent of its annual homicides. It is hardly surprising, then, that governments are starting to rethink their approaches to controlling drugs. This is especially so since the “war” on drugs has resulted in more avoidable deaths and higher social costs than their consumption. The costs of waging the war has also drained public coffers and exposed democratic institutions to unparalleled corruption and organized crime.
When night falls, street crack marketplaces open for business.
The gritty transactions of the drug trade take over in city neighborhoods that hum with legitimate commerce by day. Throngs of stupefied buyers crowd around dealers before skulking away behind the telltale glow of cigarette lighters.
These are not the images that Brazil wants to project.
The Brazilian government says it will invest more than $2 billion to curb the spread of crack cocaine in Latin America’s biggest country.
The Health Ministry says the government will invest 4 billion reals ($2.2 billion) in the program. That includes creation of a public health network focused on treating drug users.
The ministry’s statement on Wednesday says that more than 300 medical offices will be set up to provide health care in urban areas with large numbers of drug users. Nearly 600 temporary shelters will be built to monitor the recovery of addicts.