Is São Paulo’s Drug Treatment Program Working?

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Authorities say crack use has dropped 80 percent since the implementation of a state-run drug treatment program one year ago in Brazil’s notorious “Crackland” district in São Paulo, but there are reasons to doubt the initiative’s reported success.

There are currently 300 crack users in the São Paulo neighborhood of Luz — better known as Cracolândia, or Crackland — according to the city’s Municipal Health Ministry. This is a fifth of the 1,500 addicts that were in Cracolândia before the implementation of With Open Arms (“De Braços Abertos”), a government-sponsored drug treatment program initiated in January 2014, reported a municipal government office in São Paulo. 

The government also reported that crime has gone down in this area: military police registered an 80 percent decrease in vehicle theft and a 33 percent drop in street robberies in 2014, while drug trafficking arrests increased 83 percent.

With Open Arms — which provides housing, food, and jobs to over 400 drug users in the neighborhood of Luz — does not require users to stop using drugs in order to join the program. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Although last year’s significant drop in crack use would theoretically point to With Open Arms’ effectiveness in lowering addiction rates in Cracolândia, a closer look at the numbers reveals a different story. As InSight Crime has reported, the majority of those arrested in the area during a recent crackdown on “drug traffickers” were small time dealers at best and also addicts; their disappearence from the area may account for the startling drop in the number of addicts.

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It’s also possible this intervention, however well intentioned, simply pushed some drug users into other parts of São Paulo, which is suffering from a crack epidemic.  

In many ways, Brazil’s mixed strategy towards Cracolândia — providing health-based solutions such as With Open Arms, while also relying on police to make arrests — reflects a wider ambivalence towards drug policy reform throughout Latin America. Despite a growing number of countries in the region moving away from prohibitionist drug policies, evidence suggests many in practice are still implementing punitive measures against drug users.

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