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Humane Welfare Program Reduces Crack use in Sao Paulo

The Brazilian Crack User Support Program, With Open Arms, provides people with housing and jobs. This approach, applied to residents of the so-called “Crackland” area in Sao Paulo, Brazil, has led to a significant reduction in drug use and has enabled many people to improve their lives.

The Open Embrace Project (De Braços Abertos ) was initiated in 2014 by the mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad. Prior to the start of the program, “Crackland”—the informal name for a small area in the city—had a consistently high increase in drug use that previous punitive measures could not cope with. Mayor Haddad launched this program to test the effectiveness of approaches based on prioritizing health and community support rather than punishment.  

The program provides accommodation in nearby hotel rooms, as well as daily meals at a local canteen, access to medical care, and the opportunity to earn money cleaning. Most importantly, all 450 program participants can access all services without having to stop using drugs.

With Arms Open has been criticized in some of the São Paulo media, such as Estadão and Diário, for allegedly promoting drug use. These publications described the project in negative terms and stated that it contributes to the growth of crime, since it does not oblige participants to stop using.

The program has successfully provided people who abuse drugs with a stable lifestyle by helping them to reduce their use without forcing them to do so. According to the latest report published by the Brazilian Drug Policy Platform (BPDP), two-thirds of With Arms Open participants claim to have significantly reduced their use of crack after they volunteered for the program.  The Sao Paulo City Council report confirmed the results of the BPDP. Among all participants in the program over two years, the number of people who use “large” amounts of crack – from 82 to 100 crack crystals per week – has decreased from 16% to 2%. Most surprisingly, the number of people who used crack throughout the day dropped from 65% to 5%.

While the program has been running successfully for two and a half years, the BPDP highlights several areas that need to be improved. Many participants in the program said they would like to be relocated to avoid the temptation, as in six of the seven local hotels, crack is sold and consumed ubiquitously. Additionally, the participants want better working conditions, registration of work books, higher wages and opportunities to expand areas of activity.  

Despite all this, the program effectively brings back into society people who have previously been punished, exiled and censured. Participants in the program perceive it positively, many say that the new daily routine, which they managed to achieve through obtaining public housing and work, allowed them to minimize social conflicts and significantly reduce the use of crack.

Alexandre Padilha, health secretary for the City of Sao Paulo, says that those who criticize the Open Embrace project should come up with an alternative approach that is just as effective in reducing drug use, “they need to get over their preconceptions and show results.” 

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