Crack untamed: treat users, kill the market

Flávia Resende
Comunidad segura
May 7, 2010

crack-minasBrazil will soon have a special police task force targeting crack-cocaine. Meanwhile, the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais proposes its own drug fighting alternatives to address crack on the domestic front. Crack is a risk factor in urban violence, contributing to homicides and robberies in Brazilian cities. However, it is not the chemistry involved in crack, but the crack market that is increasing the crime and violence. How can rising crack use effectively be addressed, other than through mere suppression?

Brazil will soon have a special police task force targeting crack-cocaine, as announced by the National Public Security Secretary, Ricardo Balestreri. In the meanwhile, the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais proposes its own drug fighting alternatives to address crack on the domestic front.

How can we address rising crack use effectively, other than through mere suppression? A research project headed by Luis Flávio Sapori, coordinator of PUC Minas university’s Public Security Research Center (Cepesp), and Executive secretary of the Minas Pela Paz Institute, is looking for answers.

The study interviewed 50 people over the past two years, among those interviewed are crack users, their relatives, police officers, health workers and drug sellers, as crack use becomes a national issue.

“Crack is a public problem of the utmost gravity, and the field of security is still in shock, not knowing how to react,” said Sapori, adding that it is important to raise awareness of the issue. In his view, crack is a risk factor in urban violence. “It is a contributing factor in homicides and robberies in Brazilian cities,” said Sapori, who stresses however that it is not the chemistry involved in crack that makes it crime inducing, but the crack market that is to blame. He argues that since selling crack has become a more lucrative business than cocaine or cannabis, hitting hardest on the poor,“ in the crack market the price you pay for debt is death, and it pushes the homicide rate up”, said Sapori.

He also said that crack is associated to higher drug addiction. “Looking for money, crack addicts end up involved in property crime,” said Sapori. He said that in comparison to other illegal drug markets, the crack market is more fragmented. “There are those crack sellers who end up becoming users and themselves entering into debt, which means more homicides,” said Sapori. It is not a biochemical effect, according to Sapori that is to blame. “Crack does not create more aggressive individuals, but it does lead to debt which is a decisive factor,” said Sapori.

More than a mere security problem, crack is also a public health issue, noted Sapori. ”Crack users are more intense and agitated than cocaine users,” said Sapori, who pointed out that there is no national public policy for drug users who elect treatment, whether voluntarily or compulsorily.

Crack use has also adverse effects on user’s personal relationships. “They get into problems with their families; they stop working, destroy their own lives, and end up looking for shelter among other crack users. Crack generates derelict areas and degrades urban areas. ”Crack users tend to look for dirty, unlit places, and abandoned buildings,” said Sapori.

In search of solutions

There are no successful crack fighting strategies in the world today, which makes the problem more intractable, believes Sapori. In the United States, according to Sapori, the drug stopped being sold because drug traffickers considered it unprofitable, but in Brazil the drug still brings in cash, “drug traffickers will continue to sell it,” he said.

Crack suppression therefore means setting up partnerships across different areas of the administration. “It is not a police problem,” said Sapori. In his view it requires a comprehensive strategy involving actors in security and health, the development of antidrug policies as well as the participation of municipal authorities, prosecutors and the Judiciary. Successful policies against crack will necessarily involve internment in treatment centers, Sapori said, adding that he does not believe in legalizing crack use. “Crack is very different from cannabis, its effects are unique,” he said, “suppression is necessary.”

Sapori believes that the raw materials necessary to make crack should not be allowed to enter Brazilian borders, but he is most adamant about dismantling the illegal labs that produce the drug locally. “We need to take it out of the market. It has to be made more expensive and less lucrative,” said Sapori, noting that “we still lack police strategies against the crack market.”

Although no country has tried to take crack out of the market, Sapori believes that however challenging, it is worth a try. “We need to make it more expensive and less lucrative on the one hand, while on the other users must have real access to treatment allied to strong crack use prevention campaigns, “ said Sapori. “Our results also tell us that we much engage schools as quickly as possible.

Crack fighting initiatives in Minas Gerais

The first inter-agency attempt to offer crack treatment took place in 2005 and it came out of an initiative located at Pedreira Prado Lopes in Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais state. It was a multi-partner initiative that included the Social Defense Office, the Sub office for Drug Policy, the Public Prosecution, the Municipality, treatment organizations from civil society and the Special Juvenile Courts, intervening in an area known as ‘crackland’ (cracolândia).

According to the Antidrug Policy Sub secretary Cloves Eduardo Benevides, the initiatives continues in the area. There were a total of 117 crack users sent to treatment to date. A psychologist and a social worker work in a team to reach out to crack users with the purpose of taking them to clinics that maintained by civil society organizations. Police officers also take part in the initiative, and crack users who refuse treatment are taken to a special court, where judges have the power to sentence them to forced treatment.

The Pedreira initiative included measures to improve the urban area, with the goal of keeping the city well lit and clean, without derelict buildings. Crack using groups that resisted were constantly visited the police with the goal of generating discomfort. Many crack users left the area.

Benevides however, believes the situation is still very serious. “Crack is a very powerful, elusive substance; it generates a feeling of wholeness that will not be shaken while it is active. Users are so deeply connected to that feeling that they cannot live without it anymore,” said Benevides. He also addresses a common misconception, “the drug is cheap for a first try, but if you use it continuously, the price goes up, and it is an expensive habit to keep. “There are users who spend up to 300 Brazilian Reals a day for 15 seconds of pleasure the drug will give them," said Benevides.

Sentencing for crack users, necessary

Benevides adds that crack changed the nature of anti-drug discussions. “We were on our way to de-sentencing, an important and historic milestone, but it is useless for crack,” said Benevides. “Crack has changed the profile of drug users, and is an aggravating factor in violence. Crack users do not want treatment, they do away with their social ties, and there is no sign of any medication that is able to change this situation,” said Benevides.

Benevides believes it is important to attack crack use from a multi-partner perspective and create a social pact against crack addiction. “Crack is a problem that belongs to the whole of society,” said Benevides, “users must be treated. If we deny them assistance, they will turn to crime. Simply doing away with sentencing is no solution; we have to get at the heart of the motivation of crack users.  He cautions against returning to failed models of the past, such as considering internment for all. “We need a strategy that takes the best of each field,” said Benevides.

Minas Gerais state spends approximately 7 million a year in drug policy strategies. Among them are initiatives such as Papo Legal and Terra da Sobriedade, both active in drug prevention and both are examples of partnerships with civil society organizations and contributing to the development of state drug prevention policy.

Minas is also known for the SOS drogas, a leading center treating drug addiction with 39 partner organizations from civil society. According to Benevides, the center is designed offer the type of care that has been unavailable at Brazil’s central health care system (Sistema Único de Saúde, SUS). “We must, as a nation, be able to offer internment at a public hospital for a drug user in an acute state” said Benevides, who believes the SUS has to offer more specific policies for this group.

The Sub secretary also cites the work being carried out in prevention programs such as the Ceapa, Central de Penas Alternativas (Alternative sentencing center) that is connected to Seds. It has already offered alternative sentencing to over five thousand drug users. Minas Gerais also has 240 Municipal Councils to discuss the topic.

Benevides said that the correct approach for drug abuse involving crack cocaine is the “way of the middle rationale”, that means you have to work with the drug user as well as individuals working the drug market. “We need neither society and health care turning their backs to the problem, nor a purely repressive strategy. We need more significant police intelligence and a strategy of support for those who suffer for lack of the drug. We need to position ourselves as a state that goes beyond the confines of specific administrations,” said Benevides.

Translated by Lis Horta Moriconi