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No quick fix for Paris's growing crack cocaine problem

·5 min read

France’s drug laws have failed to stop crack cocaine users disrupting life on the streets of Paris. A small but very visible number have been making life difficult for residents in the north of the capital, and there is disagreement about whether they're criminals, or victims in need of treatment.

A few hundred people wearing ripped and dirty clothes are living amid piles of garbage in a park in the north of Paris.

They’re a mix of crack users and dealers and it’s hard to tell them apart.

Crack – a derivative of cocaine – is easy and inexpensive to produce. Dealers make small batches at home, passing themselves off as users if the police come near.

Police moved the addicts to this strip of land near the peripherique ring road bordering the suburb of Pantin at the end of September.

It’s just the latest in a string of displacements since an entrenched encampment, ‘La colline du crack’ (crack hill), was dismantled in November 2019.

Each time the addicts are moved on, local residents protest saying they make life unbearable.

The authorities recently built a wall to block a tunnel connecting the area with Pantin, ostensibly to keep addicts from crossing over, but angered residents find they are once again on the receiving end of Paris' misery.

No easy solution

There's no quick solution to end the misery of the addicts and those living nearby. Crack is extremely addictive so treatment is complicated.

There is also disagreement over how to approach the addicts. Are they victims in need of medical treatment or criminals who should be punished?

This story is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen here:

France’s drug policy, based on a 1970 law, says they are both. Under some of the most repressive legislation against drug users in Europe, drug users in France can avoid prison sentences only if they agree to go into treatment.

However, people working with addicts say that kind of coercive treatment does not work, especially for those living rough on the streets.

An estimated 40- to 44-thousand people smoke crack in France, according to the French drugs observatory (OFDT), some 13,000 of them in the Paris area.

But the current crisis in the capital concerns the few hundred crack users who are also homeless, jobless and often mentally-ill.

“The issue is social precarity,” sociologist Marie Jauffret-Roustide told RFI.

In a study she worked on for the OFDT, she found that many crack users have psychiatric problems, not always linked to their drug use.

“Almost all the users we met had suffered extreme trauma in their lives. Consuming crack is a way for them to forget about their difficult lives,” she says.

Insisting that these addicts go straight into treatment is not going to work.

“Some people want to quit. And that's great. But it is absurd to say that that should be the first step,” says Jauffret-Roustide “Often people don't see a way out [of their addiction] so the first step should be to encourage them to see a way out.”

New crack crisis?

The current crisis in Paris is just the latest in a series which began in the 1980s, when crack arrived in mainland France from the Caribbean departments, especially Guyana.

Crack dealer networks throughout northern Paris and the poor suburbs in Seine Saint Denis were shut down in the early 2000s, and the problem seemed to disappear, or was at least less visible.

But now, as the northeast of Paris is gentrifying, addicts are once again being pushed out in the open. Also, the OFDT has reported a drop in the price of cocaine, making the drug more readily available.

Other cities like Bordeaux and Lille have reported growing problems with crack.

Harm reduction

Tension between hardliners and those who support treatment has let up recently, as the focus moved to drug consumption rooms (DCRs) – facilities where users can inject heroin or smoke crack in a supervised setting. Medical staff provide clean needles and pipes, and can encourage treatment.

In 2016 France passed an exception to the drug law to allow DCRs to be tested in Strasbourg and Paris, modelled on what had been done decades earlier in Switzerland and Germany as part of a harm reduction approach introduced during the AIDS crisis of the 1990s.

Critics of the rooms say it is condoning drug use, and that addicts should receive treament beforehand.

But experience on the ground shows that consumption rooms offer safer places to use drugs, so people end up with fewer illnesses, and they are often a first step towards seeking treatment.

Florence Vorspan, a psychiatrist specialising in addiction at the Fernand Widal hospital in Paris, says addicts are not lining up to get clean.

“People who end up in drug treatment don’t go towards it on their own,” she told RFI.

“What we see in Paris is a chain that starts with harm reduction initiatives, where people go into the streets to convince addicts to go to consumption rooms. They get introduced to treatment, and only then will they go into hospital with us to quit,” she explains, adding that treatment and harm reduction programmes are not contradictory.

The politics of crack

The government has authorised four more consumption rooms in Paris, which has led to opposition from local residents.

The decision followed months of debate over how to address the problem, highlighting disagreement even within the government.

Interior minister Gerard Darmanin has taken a hardline approach, ordering police to displace addicts every few weeks, and criticising groups providing food, saying they are just making the problem worse.

This runs counter to Health Minister Olivier Veran, a doctor and former MP, who was on the commission studying the Strasbourg DCR. He says harm reduction is the way forward.

Veran has now put responsibility for building the consumption rooms on the city of Paris, whose mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has long found herself at odds with the government over the issue

Heading into an election year, where Hidalgo will be running for president, likely against Emmanuel Macron, the crack problem has become a political football. Politicians are tossing responsibility back and forth, while addicts – and the people living around them – continue to suffer.

This story first appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen here.

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