Tue, Jul 19, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Brazilian boom gives rise to a crack epidemic

‘CRACOLANDIA’:While consumption of the drug has dwindled in the US, it has spiked in Brazil as a growing economy gave people money to spend

AP, RIO DE JANEIRO

In the dark before dawn, social workers advance slowly down a narrow road dividing two vast slums, entering a landscape of littered streets and broken-down shacks, where an open-air crack cocaine market does business among piles of rubble.

Escorted by police through this cracolandia, or crackland, they look behind cardboards, in corners hidden by overgrown weeds for drug users who emerge, dazed, from ragged blankets. Some fight and run. One young woman, her pregnant belly bulging under her short top, starts crying and pulling at her hair as police officers securing the area try to pacify her.

“Calm down, Taiane. Calm down,” says an officer who knows her. “Look at me. It’s me.”

About two decades after the US emerged from the worst of its own crack epidemic, Brazilian authorities are watching the cheap drug spread across this country of 190 million people. They have far fewer resources to deal with it, despite a booming economy that expanded 7.5 percent last year.

No corner of Brazil has been spared. A recent survey by the National Federation of Counties found 98 percent of them had registered traffic or consumption of crack.

In Sao Paulo, the first place in Brazil to have a large consumer market for the drug beginning in the 1990s, police seizure of crack went from 595 kilos in 2006 to 1,636 kilos in 2009, according to federal police. In Rio de Janeiro, arrests related to crack jumped from 546 in 2009 to 2,597 last year, according to the research arm of Rio’s public safety department.

This spike happened even as consumption of the drug started to dwindle in the US. According to the UN’s World Drug Report 2011, a squeeze on supplies coming from Mexico drove prices up by more than 80 percent between 2006 and 2009. Brazil then became the main transit country for cocaine streaming from the producing Andean nations to Europe, the report said. With a growing economy after years of hyperinflation, Brazilians also had more cash to spend on drugs.

Soon, more crack was being seized in Brazil than in the US. The UN report says 163 kilos were seized in the US in 2009, only 10 percent of what Brazilian police say they seized in Sao Paulo alone in the same year.

“For us doctors, there is a crack epidemic,” said Ricardo Paiva, who monitors the spread of the drug for the National Council of Medicine, a group representing doctors. “We feel we’re losing the war.”

It’s a deadly battle. Research by the Federal University of Sao Paulo showed that after five years, one-third of crack users had died, most of them from violence.

A federal government plan to fight the drug was signed in May last year, with a budget of US$253 million. Critics said from the beginning the resources weren’t nearly enough. A year later, implementation was lagging. Of the funds budgeted, only US$57 million had been allocated, and of that, only US$3 million spent.

“It’s been just talk,” Paiva said. “This is a serious public health problem, and the government cannot be absent.”

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