São Paulo Begins Ominous Inquiry Into Disproven “Crack Epidemic”

    In 2016, the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo held a parliamentary inquiry to investigate what they referred to as a “crack epidemic.” Seven years later, it’s launching another one. Everything we know about it suggests new threats to unhoused people and people who use crack cocaine.

    In January, São Paulo state inaugurated a new governor, Tarcisio de Freitas, a close ally of former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Freitas had campaigned on ending cracolândias—a term once applied to a specific location in downtown São Paulo, but which today refers to a number of emerging sites in the city center and elsewhere.

    In March, the new legislature began its four-year term. On May 25, the government announced that, the request of Deputy Paulo Corrêa Jr., a nine-person commission had been created to oversee the inquiry into the “epidemic.”

    Pressure for this has been building. We’ve seen a scaremongering campaign by local media, bombing readers with stories about closures of schools and businesses, fears and routines of local residents, and violence in the streets. Cracolândias are such a hot topic that it even has a specific section on the website of Folha de S. Paulo, the country’s second-largest newspaper, which publishes scores of stories and opinion pieces on it every year. In all of these narratives, crack and people who use it are to blame.

    Even the name of the inquiry rejects the established facts.

    Most of the lawmakers participating in the commission are allies of Freitas, and of the like-minded São Paulo city Mayor Ricardo Nunes. It was slated to determine which members will serve in leadership roles by June 1, but the vote was postponed. Once those appointments are made, the commission will have 120 days to complete the investigation.

    The inquiry will comprise a series of hearings in which deputies and their allies will present “evidence,” or at least what they consider to be evidence.

    Even the name of the inquiry is a rejection of established facts. In 2014, a study from FIOCRUZ, Brazil’s preeminent scientific research institution, stated that “an epidemic can only be technically characterized from results obtained from a historical series of records of estimates/counts of the phenomenon under analysis.” And a 2017 FIOCRUZ study found that there was no evidence to support claims that the country is home to a “crack epidemic.” The government’s response was to censor the findings from the public.

    What the most recent data show is that across all regions of Brazil, less than 1 percent of the population aged 12-65 are estimated to have used crack at at some point in their lives—and just 0.01 percent are estimated to have used it recently.

    Targeting the residents of cracolândias serves several interconnected political agendas.

    “We are advancing towards the implementation of the important inquiry that will investigate one of the most critical problems of society: the crack epidemic,” Corrêa Jr. nonetheless stated via Instagram.

    “Destroying families, removing the user’s dignity, being one of the major reasons for abandoning the household and the increase in crime, crack has brought many problems and sorrow for all the segments of population. And it is not possible to watch this SOCIAL DISEASE from a distance.”

    The purpose of investigating an “epidemic” that doesn’t exist is to demonize unhoused people who use drugs. Targeting the residents of cracolândias serves several interconnected political agendas: the gentrification of downtown São Paulo, where real estate developers circle like vultures; the thirst for police violence against people who use drugs; a distraction from root causes of poverty and the housing crisis; and the continued existence of the lucrative forced treatment industry.

    We can expect more policing violence in São Paulo. And this is happening at a time when the Supreme Federal Court is supposed to vote on an extraordinary appeal that should decriminalize de jure the possession of drugs.

    The 2016 legislature was technically more left-leaning than the current one, but not in any meaningful way. The inquiry seven years ago essentially found what we already knew, and which is still true today: People in low-income communities who use drugs need housing, employment and health care. Those findings did not stop the right-wing administration that took over in 2017 from systematically dismantling the city’s harm reduction resources. Whatever findings come out of this one won’t serve the people of São Paulo’s cracolândias any better.



    Photograph of 2017 cracolândia police raid via Governor of the State of São Paulo/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Felipe is a Brazilian anthropologist. He’s a criminology lecturer at the University of Manchester, where he researches drug policy, state violence, structural racism and reparations for historical inequalities. He lives in London.

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