Brazil fights against crack

The increasing use by Brazilians of crack cocaine, which is often sold in packets like the ones above that were seized by police, has created a major problem that keeps getting bigger. (Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)

The increasing use by Brazilians of crack cocaine, which is often sold in packets like the ones above that were seized by police, has created a major problem that keeps getting bigger. (Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)

By Danielle Melo for Infosurhoy.com—28/01/2010

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The growing number of crack cocaine addicts seeking treatment in Brazil has morphed into something much larger than a threat to national security: It has become a health crisis.

In a two-part series, Infosurhoy.com will scrutinize the crack epidemic that’s plaguing Brazil, and more importantly, what the blossoming superpower is doing to win the war against crack in a country that has no idea how many addicts are walking its streets.

Brazil is trying to be proactive against crack, a solid, smokable form of cocaine.

For more than the past month, the ministry of health has spearheaded an unprecedented campaign in the county’s history against narcotics, as it has spread the word against the use of crack via advertisements in newspapers, TV and on radio, in addition to getting the message across in movies and on the Internet.

It’s a simple slogan: “Never try crack. It is addictive and kills.”

The fear is real: More than 50% of drug users receiving treatment in Brazil are addicted to crack, according to a survey coordinated by Centro de Pesquisa em Álcool e Drogas da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

The health ministry also is expanding the network of Centros de Atenção Psicossocial (CAPs), which offers free care to people with mental disorders and drug addiction.

A total of R$215 million (US$118.7 million) will be allocated for this purpose by the end of 2010, including investment in personnel training.

Nowadays there are 1,467 CAPs in Brazil, but just 223 specifically treat drug addicts. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a country should have one center per 100,000 citizens. Brazil’s CAPs cover 60% of its population, which is about 189.6 million. For Brazil to comply with the WHO’s request, it would need to have about 2,000 CAPs.

In these centers, users consult with psychologists or psychiatrists and do occupational therapy, in addition to families being offered assistance.

“After alcohol, crack is the drug that takes more people to CAPs. Initially, the drug was restricted to São Paulo,” Pedro Gabriel Delgado, mental health coordinator at the ministry of health, told newspaper Correio Braziliense. “Throughout the last five years it spread to urban centers in all regions.”

If there’s a need for hospitalization, crack addicts are referred to public hospitals. There are 35,000 beds for people with mental disorders in Brazil, 30% of which are occupied by crack users, according to estimates by the ministry. Hospitalization occurs when there is a need for detoxification and usually lasts no longer than 15 days.

The free treatment offered by Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS), as the public health system is called in Brazil, has extended to drug addicts since 2003, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first year in office.

Since then, the money allocated to mental health programs has more than doubled, going from R$619 million (US$342 million) at the end of 2002 to R$1.4 billion (US$744 million) in 2009.

Besides the ministry of health and the federal police, other institutions have assisted in the war against crack, such as the Polícia Rodoviária Federal, Polícia Civil and the department of social services. The articulation of these policies lies with the national anti-drug secretariat, which falls under the institutional security cabinet of the presidency.

But here’s the problem: Brazil’s most recent figures related to the number of crack addicts in the country were taken in 2005, when the government estimated there were 380,000.

Data on drug seizures also does not reveal the real picture, due to irregularities in the seizures. According to the federal police (PF) 319 kilos of crack were seized in the country in 2005. The following year, the number dropped to 145 kilos. In 2007, it jumped to 578 kilos and it fell again in 2008 to 373 kilos. Last year, about 513 kilos were seized.

But even those numbers are misleading. Cocaine transforms into crack when chemicals are used to harden the powder, turning it into a rock-like shape, which can be smoked. But often the cocaine seized hasn’t been turned into crack, so when the Brazilian police confiscated 18,851 kilos of cocaine in 2009, it couldn’t be classified as crack since the drug was still in powder form.

According to the federal police, the volume seized varies widely because the PF focuses on the traffickers, not the users. The target is to intercept shipments arriving from other countries – namely Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay. The PF signed agreements with Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru last year stating the countries will work together in the war on drugs.

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