Brazilian crackhead
Brazilian crackhead Reuters

City officials in Sao Paulo, Brazil, have announced they will round up local crack cocaine addicts from the streets and force them to seek treatment.

Eloisa de Sousa, the justice secretary of Sao Paulo state, told Agence France-Presse that the city of Rio de Janeiro already has such a program in place, but only with minors.

"These are extreme cases, and we cannot just let people die," she said. "The state has to intervene."

The collection of street drug abusers will be done in coordination with the Sao Paulo state prosecutor's office, the state's highest court as well as the Brazilian bar association, AFP noted. Police will reportedly not be deployed in these roundups; in their stead social service agencies will be involved.

The new measure in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city with more than 11 million people, will focus on adult addicts. The city has thus far set up 700 places in drug rehabilitation centers, but plans to open many more to accommodate an expected surge in admissions.

The desperate move by Sao Paulo highlights the tragic rise of drug addiction in a country that has concurrently engineered an economic miracle that has lifted millions out of poverty.

According to a study by Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Federal University of Sao Paulo), Brazil is now the world’s number one market for crack cocaine -- with at least 1 million hard-core users.

The Brazilian Congress will soon consider a bill that would not only increase penalties for drug trafficking but also call for the forced treatment of addicts across the vast country.

In 2011, the government unveiled a $2 billlion program to cope with the drug epidemic by focusing on prevention, health care and policing.

Health Minister Alexandre Padilha warned at the time that the number of drug addicts in Brazil had increased tenfold between 2003 and 2011.

"Crack has become a deep social wound, given its capacity to destroy families," Padilha said.

Digital Journal noted that individual hits of crack are cheap, available for as little as $1.10, and highly addictive, leading addicts to get high as much as a dozen times a day. The addiction crisis has created powerful drug gangs, a surge in violent crime and prostitution.

National Public Radio noted that the once-grand Luz district of central Sao Paulo is now called "Cracolandia."

Isabel Campos, a health worker who seeks to help crackheads in the neighborhood, told NPR: "They're here all day, smoking crack."

Twenty years after the crack epidemic in the U.S. peaked, Brazil appears to be suffering from two dismal realities – it is a neighbor to the world’s largest cocaine manufacturers and its lengthy borders are porous and unguarded.

"Brazil offers a big market of cocaine and crack consumers," Eloisa Arruda, the secretary of justice for Sao Paulo state, told NPR.

"And that's partly because people have more buying power. It's a big growth of people using crack in public. People permanently in the street consuming drugs day and night."

In a broader context, Brazil is eager to clean up its image ahead of the World Cup in 2014, when it will be the focus of much of the world’s attention.

However, as in the United States, some people see a racial element to Brazil’s crackdown on drugs.

In an opinion piece in the Hudson Valley Press newspaper of New York state, Harry C. Alford, co-founder and president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, wrote that the drug laws in Brazil will disproportionately affect its black population.

“Crack addiction is out of control in Brazil,” he wrote. “Keep in mind that Brazil has over 100 million Black citizens, which makes the nation second only to Nigeria in Black population. That is two and a half times the Black population of the United States.”

He lamented the lack of political power for blacks in Brazil.

“This nation tries to hide its Blackness,” Alford opined. “Blacks are 52 percent of the population but, in a nation where voting is mandatory, Blacks have less than 10 percent of the elected officials. They have no economic base.”

Alford suggests that drug dealing – which, again, disproportionately victimizes black Brazilians – flourishes due to official corruption and complicity by the police and legal community.