October 20th, 2016
São Paulo’s pioneering harm reduction program for people who use crack cocaine faces an uncertain future following the recent election of a mayor who says he will shut it down.
Joao Doria of Brazil’s Socialist Democrat Party (SDP) was elected mayor on October 2, receiving 53 percent of the vote. The result marked a sharp rejection of the incumbent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party, who achieved only 17 percent in his attempt at reelection.
Doria, a man some have compared to Donald Trump, owing to his role on Brazil’s version of The Apprentice and lack of political experience, will take office on January 1, 2017.
A key pledge during the mayor-elect’s campaign was to shut down one of the city’s more controversial programs from the Fernando Haddad era: “With Open Arms” (De Braços Abertos, or DBA). This initiative, implemented by mayoral decree in early 2014, provides housing and employment opportunities for people who use crack cocaine in São Paulo’s so-called “Crackland” district, without requiring that they abstain from drug use.
Over 900 people have been enrolled in DBA since it launched in 2014, and as of June this year around 500 were actively engaged in the program. Many of these people, as well as being housed, work as street cleaners or gardeners, among other roles, in return for R$15 per day (around $5). Participants also receive meals and are linked up with healthcare services.
As TalkingDrugs has reported, two separate studies—one by the Brazilian Platform for Drug Policy (BPDP), an advocacy group, and the other by the municipal government—found that the majority of those engaged in the program had reduced their use of crack cocaine, with people noting that the stability of employment and housing had a positive impact on their lives
Doria, conversely, wants to see this population placed into abstinence-based drug treatment. Speaking last month ahead of the election, he stated that upon DBA’s closure, people would enter the state government’s Restart (Recomeço) treatment program.
BPDP has criticised Doria’s proposal to end DBA, highlighting that the Restart program is “at odds with contemporary knowledge about the care and treatment of people who use drugs problematically.” They also state that in the three years since Restart began, it has not undergone an evaluation of its efficacy and outcomes.
The BPDP is not alone in this stance. A collective of human rights groups and movements launched a manifesto on Facebook late last month titled “In Defence of With Open Arms, Freedom and Democracy.” Nathália Oliveira of the Black Initiative for a New Drug Policy (INNDP) told Justificando that the importance of DBA lies in its promotion of the rights of people who use drugs. Other programs, she said, operate as a barrier to including these groups in society.
Edward Fox is the policy and communications manager of Release, the UK-based center of expertise on drugs and drugs law, and oversees their website TalkingDrugs. He previously worked as an editor and journalist in Colombia, specializing in drug policy and production and US-led counter narcotics efforts in the region. A version of this post first appeared on TalkingDrugs.