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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | November 2009 

Brazil's Crack Epidemic - Yet another Tough Nut to Crack in War on Drugs
email this pageprint this pageemail usMario Osava - Inter Press Service
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November 23, 2009


The expansion of crack, which is especially visible at some city squares and streets where addicts congregate, has mainly occurred among the poor. But the drug has also made headway among better-off sectors of the population.
Rio de Janeiro - J. ran away from home - a shack in a "favela" or shantytown in Brazil - when he was just eight years old, after he realised that the money he begged for in the streets was spent by his violent father on alcohol and drugs. He became a street urchin, as his two older brothers - with whom he lost contact long ago - had already done.

Frequent beatings by his father were the other main factor in his decision to leave. With respect to his mother, a seamstress, J. doesn't complain of abuse, but rather about "indifference." One of his two younger brothers, age six, is still panhandling for his father, who taught his kids begging techniques.

J., who is now 12 years old, left his home four years ago, and within just a few weeks, he had joined the legion of crack addicts wandering the streets of Brazil's big cities.

In Rio de Janeiro, between 80 and 90 percent of homeless people are addicted to crack - a cheaper, potent, highly addictive form of cocaine that is sold in small chunks and smoked rather than snorted - according to estimates by mental health professionals and social workers who try to help this segment of the population.

The amount of crack seized by the police this year in Rio was six times the total confiscated in 2008. A growing majority of children and adolescents receiving assistance from municipal services say they use crack.

In response, the Rio city government is opening special treatment centres for crack addicts.

The expansion of crack, which is especially visible at some city squares and streets where addicts congregate, has mainly occurred among the poor. But the drug has also made headway among better-off sectors of the population.

The magnitude of this urban epidemic was catapulted to the headlines when Bruno Kligierman de Melo, a 26-year-old guitar player, killed his friend Bárbara Calazans, an 18-year-old student, on Oct. 24. According to the police, he strangled her in a fit of madness brought on by crack, which he had been using for six years.

Drug consumption, which was preceded by alcohol use in school, turned "a good person into a murderer," lamented his father, Luiz Proa, in an open letter in which he called for drug addicts to be forced into treatment, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, according to which drug treatment must be voluntary in order to be effective.

The proliferation of crack represents a new challenge for Brazil in terms of counter-drug action, at a time when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva himself acknowledges that the country's anti-drug policies have been ineffective.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, created in 2008 and headed by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) of Brazil, César Gaviria (1990-1994) of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) of Mexico, said in its report, released in February, that the "war on drugs" was a failure.

The recommendations put forth by the Commission, made up of 17 personalities from Latin America, included the decriminalisation of marijuana for personal use, the treatment of drug addiction as a public health problem, and a refocusing of public policies to make the fight against organised crime a top priority.

As a cheap, fast-acting drug that provides an intense high, crack is popular among consumers, which also makes it attractive to drug dealers and traffickers because it is "good business," psychiatrist Carlos Salgado, president of the Brazilian Association of Studies on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ABEAD), told IPS.

The fact that the high is so immediate, intense and short-lived drives addicts to constantly be looking for their next fix, and many smoke crack dozens of times a day, he explained.

J. started smoking crack with "a 40-year-old guy."

"I felt really good, and strong" - a pleasant sensation he had never experienced before, he told IPS. It was different from what he had felt when he drank alcohol or smoked a cigarette - his first drugs; smoked marijuana - which he doesn't like because it makes him hungry and sleepy; or snorted cocaine, "which didn't do anything for me."

The man who turned him on to drugs also introduced him to petty drug-dealing. Adding up what he takes in by dealing drugs and panhandling, J. says he makes between 50 and 70 reals (29 to 41 dollars) a day - all of which he spends on crack.

A pebble of crack costs five reals (2.90 dollars), but it is only enough for two highs - a few minutes of pleasure. Larger rocks cost twice that.

J. says it's easier to get the small amount of food that he needs - because the drug takes away his appetite - by begging. The same goes for clothes.

Around a dozen people "from ages four to 60" are his "colleagues" on the streets of a neighbourhood near the centre of Rio. The police don't bother them.

J. admits that he is illiterate, and says he has no dreams for the future. "All I need are these little rocks," he says. Nor does he worry about the health threats posed by crack, which according to Salgado causes terrible damages to the brain, heart, liver, kidneys and lungs, cutting short the lives of addicts.

The massive use of crack is a recent phenomenon in Rio, having spread here years after it took root in São Paulo to the south, where parts of the city have become "cracolandias" or "cracklands".

The going explanation is that the Rio drug mafias themselves, as long as they had enough control to do so, kept crack out to keep it from wreaking havoc among their "troops."

In Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia in the impoverished northeast, the Axé Project, a non-governmental organisation that has helped thousands of street children and youngsters living in slums return to school and successfully reintegrate into society, admits that its approach can do little in the face of crack.

Crack addiction is so intense and destructive that the NGO agreed that users must be forced into inpatient treatment, an exception in its methodology, which rejects the use of force in favour of persuasion, through the arts and local culture, in order to reawaken hope and the desire to build a better life.

In Fortaleza, another major city in the Brazilian northeast, a mother left her one-year-old son with her crack dealer as a guarantee of payment, and then disappeared for several months, says a documentary produced by the Central Única das Favelas (CUFA) - a movement of young slumdwellers that promotes, produces and facilitates hip hop culture through publications, discs, videos etc. - on the violence and other extreme behaviour caused by crack addiction.

But an even deadlier cheap cocaine derivative, known as "merla" in Brazil and as "paco" or "pasta base" in neighbouring Argentina and Uruguay, has become popular in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

Merla, which is also smoked, is obtained by macerating coca leaves, which are mixed with water and sulfuric acid, or a solvent like benzene, ether or kerosene.

Crack and merla have not replaced other drugs, but have merely expanded the options available to drug users, further aggravating social and personal problems, said Salgado, who is staunchly opposed to the decriminalisation of marijuana or any measures facilitating access to drugs, whether legal or illegal.

The tendency, said the psychiatrist, is to move on to harder drugs. A youngster who smokes cigarettes is four or five times more likely to start using illegal drugs than a non-smoker, and the same goes for kids who drink alcohol.



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