Carta Capital (Brazilian news magazine)

It was not so different

by Edward Grace, September 6, 2011

English Translation
by Nancy Wendel

Americans are naturally fascinated with the explosion of crack cocaine consumption in Brazil, where the number of users is near 600,000, according to the Brazilian Federal Government.

The end of the 80’s crack epidemic left scars in the United States and the increase of “Cracolandias” in Brazil [places where users gather to smoke crack] and a series of news articles in publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald is not a mere coincidence.

In the United States, the increase in consumption of crack after 1984 occurred along with a noticeable increase in violent crime in urban centers as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. This experience generates a certain concern in the American media: will the exportation of the phenomenon to the biggest Latin American economy, three decades later, increase the risks of security for tourists attending the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics?

Increasing seizures of the drug in Brazil’s domestic territory could indicate a direct connection between the two epidemics. The numbers are impressive: for the first time in history Brazil exceeded U.S. numbers. In the city of São Paulo, seizures increased between 2006 and 2009, from 595 to 1.635 kilos per year. In Rio de Janeiro, in the same period, seizures/arrests grew five times, from 546 to 2,597. “Just as we saw in the United States, dating from the second Reagan term, the Brazilian authorities are describing an increase of up to five times in arrests for crack”, points out Jeffrey Butts, sociologist and Director of a Research Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the University of the City of New York, a respected institution in the study of public policy in the U.S.A.

According to the anthropologist Osvaldo Fernandez, Visiting Professor (until last year) of the School of Public Health of Columbia University, in New York, the great increase in the use of crack in Brazil is directly related to a generation that, in response to HIV, changed products from the IV injection of cocaine base to snorting powder cocaine and smoking crack. As the latter is cheaper, it became popular and reached the poorest layers of the Brazilian society. “Crack started to be used as a stimulant that removes the sensation of hunger of the proletariat of the great urban centers”, explains the professor of the University of the State of the Bahia, author of the doctoral thesis “‘Light’ Cocaine?: Uses of the Body, Rituals of Consumption and Careers of Cocaine Users in São Paulo.”

Crack’s social stigma is also highlighted by Jeffrey Butts, who criticizes what seems to be a trend in the Brazilian media to transform the drug into the villain of the story. The U.S.A made the same error, according to the sociologist. “We always treated the problem in the criminal sphere. We have now started to approach the subject in a more, let’s say, European way, as a public health problem. But at moments of panic, we fall back on our temptation to deal with it from the criminal point of view, which only worsens the situation”.

Mandatory Rehab
Butts and Fernandez are both against the idea of forced treatment for crack users, enforced in the city of Rio de Janeiro since May. “It is an exaggerated valorization of the fetishism of the commodity and a disappearance of the subject, where you exclude user’s desires, his practices and his autonomy to confront the drug, what Marx defined as reification”, says Fernandez.

For Butts, who remembers the transformation of New York in the 90’s, the program in Rio de Janeiro seems as if it is meant to clean the streets: “When violence and consumption of drugs happen at the same time, the public tends to forget the civil rights and freedom of the individuals and just turns over the problem to the police and government. Ideally, we should deal with the problems related to the consumption of drugs just like we do with alcohol, which by the way, is much more harmful for the body than crack or cocaine”, he says.

However, the reality for those who live in the streets is terrible. A study at USP [Sao Paulo University, the nations’ most prestigious] found that one third of crack users die because of violence in a five year period. Numbers that must be looked with care, according to Butts: “It was not the use of drugs that caused the death of these people, but the legislation directed toward controlling consumption. It is an important difference. If drug users could go into a public distribution center, for example, to receive non-lethal doses, they would not be exposed to such violence. Laws against drugs kill more people than drugs”, say Butts, author of two books on the subject and who started his career as a court counselor for drug and alcohol cases involving juveniles in the state of Oregon.

The North American sociologist also emphasizes the fact that crack and cocaine are bad drugs, in the sense that the euphoria generated by the consumption passes very quickly. “In both cases, the user needs to consume more and more. Cocaine addicts use the drug in their apartments, poor people smoke crack on the streets.” According to Butts, the politics of criminalization and forced treatment, from the sociological and pharmaceutical point of view, go in the wrong direction and affect the poorest users disproportionately. Today a rock of crack can be bought for something like 5 Reals [Brazilian currency, about $3 US] in the streets of the major cities of Brazil. This increases the number of commercial transactions of an illegal product. “The more transactions, the more risk for violence and possession of weapons” he says.

Those questions, related today to the consumption of crack in Brazil right now, are not so different than the ones faced by the U.S.A. The method used to combat the American epidemic, recall the experts, was to increase border control  – the UNO estimates that the reduction, since 2006, is up to 80% for drugs entering the country – and also for an awareness campaign for civil society. “There is a generation that lived through the epidemic and they changed their attitudes relating to crack. On the other hand, the USA could invest heavily in something similar to what was done regarding the HIV virus: celebrities helping to spread information about the risks of crack. Negative publicity could play an important role in reducing consumption, much more than the threat of prison and/or forced treatment”, affirms Jeffrey Butts.