Issues of Drug Abuse in Latin America

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Drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in Latin America, and the troubles stemming from it continue to expand. Binge drinking and marijuana use are growing just as rapidly in Latin America as they are in the United States.[1] It is thought that a great deal of the substance abuse problems in the region stem from faulty education of youth who grow into drug- and alcohol-abusing adults. A great example is Brazil, where 95 percent of children are able to attend school, but only 59 percent complete their education through the 8th grade.[2]

What Is Addiction?

In 2008, 155 to 250 million people used a psychoactive substance around the world.[3] The signs and symptoms of drug abuse include:

  • Ignoring obligations and responsibilities at home, school or work to use drugs instead
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while using that one wouldn’t normally take part in if not under the influence of the substance
  • Problems have developed in interpersonal relationships with others at home or work due to substance use
  • Being arrested or charged as a criminal due to drug-related activities, like getting a DUI or resorting to theft to help pay for drug supply[4]

psychoactive substance usage stat

There is the possibility of serious side effects with certain substances, like respiratory depression in opiate abusers, which can decrease a user’s breathing capacity by 25 to 30 percent.[5] This shallow breathing can lead to brain damage and even coma and death.

HIV and AIDS are heightened risks among Latin Americans. Injection is the preferred drug abuse method of more than two million of the region’s population, and as much as 25 percent of them are injection drug users.[6] At the close of 2012, 1.5 million Latin Americans had HIV, and 86,000 of them were newly diagnosed that year.[7] The incidence of HIV actually decreased by more than 50 percent in Belize between 2001 and 2012, but the small nation still holds a 1.4 percent rate of prevalence for the virus among 15-49 year olds.[8] AIDS-related illnesses claimed the lives of 52,000 people that same year.[9]

Of equal concern is hepatitis C, affecting 54.6 percent of injection-drug-using Argentinians and over 63 percent of Brazil’s population who inject drugs.[10] In 2012, 40 to 60 percent of injection drug users in Medellin and Pereira — two Colombian cities — reported sharing equipment with another intravenous drug user (IDU).[11] Aside from physical and psychological symptoms, drug abuse can seriously hinder one’s life. From the demise of interpersonal and familial relationships to financial troubles and legal ramifications, drug abuse habits tend to rob users of a good quality of life.

Substances Latin Americans Are Using

Cannabis addiction stat
While inhalants are most popular among young teens in North America, Latin Americans are using inhalants more frequently as they get older, and the abuse of these drugs is taking a serious toll on the health of users.[12] In fact, 9.95 percent of secondary school students across Brazil reported past-month use of inhalants in a 2011 survey.[13]

Marijuana is ever-growing in popularity with Latin Americans. In a study of six of the region’s nations, 20.4 percent of Uruguay citizens, 20.7 percent of Chileans, 27.5 percent of Argentinians, 35.7 percent of Peruvians, and 51.2 percent Ecuador’s recent marijuana-using population were classified as being addicted to cannabis. Across South America, 7.3 to 7.5 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 used marijuana at least one time in the year preceding a 2008 survey.[15]

Cocaine stat

Alcohol abuse is also quite common, with a 2011 study touting nearly 50 percent of Chile’s population and over 47 percent of Argentinians admitting to past-month alcohol use.[16] Among those under the age of 15, nearly 35 percent in Brazil and almost 38 percent in Columbia consumed alcohol in the month preceding the survey.[17] For every country for which there is alcohol use data available, males consistently appear to drink alcohol more than females across the board.[18] There is an 80 percent rate of lifetime alcohol use in both Uruguay and Ecuador.[19] Approximately 246,000 people have been the victim of an alcohol-related death in Latin America.[20]

Cocaine is also used frequently in Latin America. In fact, 27 percent of all cocaine consumed in the Americas is done so by South Americans.[21] In Uruguay, 3.5 percent of the population uses cocaine, as do 1.4 percent of Peruvians.[22] Crack and cocaine paste — the initial residue that is extracted from the dried coca leaf — are popular among all age groups, but the latter is rapidly growing to be more famed among youths. This dried byproduct has 40 to 70 percent cocaine content.[23]

Mental Health

happy latino woman

At least 15.3 million people across the globe have a drug use disorder.[24] More than 20 percent of the disease burden in Latin America is due to neurological and mental health disorders.[25] Among adults, 23.7 to 39.1 percent have had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.[26] In the average city of San Paulo, Brazil, a study was carried out to assess the prevalence of mental illness among 1,251 students aged seven to 14, and 12.7 percent met the criteria for a mental health disorder.[27] Interestingly, depressive disorders were some of the fewest accounted for — a stark contrast to many other developed nations, especially where substance abuse is prevalent.

However, Latin America may have less to worry about than other nations when it comes to things like depression and mood disorders. In an early 2014 survey, many of the region’s nations ranked highly — with Brazil taking the number one spot — on the happiness scale.[28] Of the top 10, an astounding nine of the countries in that list are in Latin America.[29]

Social Views

Argentina, Chile and Uruguay use the most illicit substances among six South America nations studied in 2008.[39] The same study noted that marijuana led the pack in drug abuse with 4.8 percent of the study population aged 15 to 64 — 2.1 million people — using cannabis that year, followed by cocaine at 1.4 percent.[40] While the numbers are high, drug use is still frowned upon in Latin America. That being said, it isn’t shocking or surprising to natives, who have become quite accustomed to the impression outsiders have of the region, especially Colombians.

Latin American Laws

Certainly, the lack of regulation on drugs in some areas and the ease of access people — including youths — have to them are substantial parts of the problem when it comes to the increasing popularity of drug use in Latin America. That being said, laws are tough in many Latin American nations – so tough that drug users are most often afraid to seek the help they need for their substance abuse problems in fear of being persecuted. Crime is prevalent in Latin America and pretty much always has been. Earning the title of the “most violent place on Earth,” almost one in every three murders that occurred globally in 2013 happened there.[30] Combine that with the fact that Latin America comprises only eight percent of the world’s population, and it’s rather startling.[31] From 2000 to 2010, homicides escalated by 11 percent.[32]

Homicide rate increase

Things have gotten a little more lax in Chile, where the government has ruled to allow judicially supervised rehabilitation in the place of jail time for drug offenders.[33] Ecuador has pending legislation to clearly outline specified amounts of drugs that are okay for transport. Until it goes through, however, the nation continues to abide by strict regulations from days gone by that can land anyone in a jail cell for carrying even small amounts of illicit substances. Brazil continues to go above and beyond and has plans to establish hundreds of shelters for drug-dependent individuals in an effort to rehabilitate drug users rather than lock them up. In Colombia, citizens are now free to carry up to 22 grams of cannabis or one gram of cocaine without fear of persecution due to decriminalization.[34]

Alcohol is actually prohibited from being sold in many Latin American countries prior to and during political elections. That, coupled with the competitive prices street dealers can offer is the reason for the existence of the $2.4 billion illegal alcohol market in the region, as of 2012.[35] The illegal trade cost the legal trade up to $736 million in losses.[36] Incarceration rates have jumped by about 40 percent in South America and Mexico over the past 10 years due to increasing drug use.[37] While the manufacturing of opium has decreased significantly in Columbia over the years, going from 5,226 hectare in 1995 to only 394 in 2008, it has increased significantly in Mexico in the same time period, jumping from 5,050 to 15,000 hectares.[38]

Treatment

Currently, there are no existing overdose prevention programs in the entire Latin American region.[41] Among injection drug users, 25 to 33.3 percent of them in Medellin and Pereira reported non-fatal overdoses on heroin in 2012.[42] Additionally, six out of 10 people in both Colombian cities noted they wouldn’t seek health care for an overdose due to fear of being turned into law enforcement.[43]

As of 2012, opioid substitution therapy was only available in Colombia and Mexico, with the latter also offering needle exchange programs just as Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina do.[44] That means 12 other nations and territories in Latin America have little to provide in the way of preventative measures or treatment to opioid addicts, like heroin users. To add to that concern, even in areas where needle exchange is available, an average of 0.3 syringes are provided to each injection drug user in one year’s time.[45] In 2012, 54.3 percent of injection drug users claimed to have had sterile equipment the last time they used.[46]

Naloxone is the primary method of treatment for opiate addiction in Colombia, but although registered in other Latin American nations, the drug isn’t accessible for drug users anywhere else.[47] In all of South America, 42 percent of drug users in need of treatment received help in 2009.[48] That being said, the mechanics and efficacy of said treatment are questionable and concerning.

Citations


[1]Report on Drug Use in the Americas.” (2011). Inter-American Druse Abuse Control Commission. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[2]Child and adolescent mental health in Latin American and the Caribbean: problems, progress, and policy research.” (2005). Pan American Journal of Public Health. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[3]Other psychoactive substances.” (n.d.). World Health Organization. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[4]Drug Abuse and Addiction.” (n.d.). Help Guide. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[5]Opioid users breathe easier with novel drug to treat respiratory depression.” (2014 Aug 19). American Society of Anesthesiologists via Science Daily. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[6]HIV & AIDS in Latin America.” (n.d.). AVERT. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[7] Ibid.

[8]Global Report: UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic.” (2013). UNAIDS. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[9]HIV & AIDS in Latin America.” (n.d.). AVERT. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[10]The Global State of Harm Reduction Towards an Integrated Response.” (2012). Harm Reduction International. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12]Report on Drug Use in the Americas.” (2011). Inter-American Druse Abuse Control Commission. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14]World Drug Report: Drug Statistics and Trends.” (2010). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Report on Drug Use in the Americas.” (2011). Inter-American Druse Abuse Control Commission. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19]Drug abuse among teenagers in several South American countries.” (2010 Mar 23). MercoPress. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[20]World Drug Report: Drug Statistics and Trends.” (2010). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[21]Report on Drug Use in the Americas.” (2011). Inter-American Druse Abuse Control Commission. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[22]Drug abuse among teenagers in several South American countries.” (2010 Mar 23). MercoPress. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[23]Coca Paste – Research Article from Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol & Addictive Behavior.” (n.d.). Bookrags. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[24]Facts and figures.” (n.d.). World Health Organization. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[25] Minoletti, A., Galea, S. & Susser, E. (n.d.). “Community Mental Health Services in Latin America for People with Severe Mental Disorders.” Public Health Reviews. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Child and adolescent mental health in Latin American and the Caribbean: problems, progress, and policy research.” (2005). Pan American Journal of Public Health. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[28] Johanson, M. (2014 Mar 20). “’World’s Happiest Countries’ Are In Latin America, According to Instagram.” International Business Times.

[29] Luhnow, D. (2014 May 21). “Despite Woes, Latin America Tops Happy List.” The Wall Street Journal. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[30] Murray, M. (2014 Apr 17). “Organized Crime, Gangs Make Latin America Most Violent Region.” NBC News. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Farnsworth, E. & Vidmar Gomes, C. (2014 Apr 25). “Taking a Bite Out of Latin American Crime.” U.S. News. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[33]The Global State of Harm Reduction Towards an Integrated Response.” (2012). Harm Reduction International. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Eads, L. (2014 May 13). “Latin American’s Illicit Alcohol Trade Worth $2BN.” The Drinks Business. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Youngers, C. & Walsh, J.M. (2009). “Drug Decriminalization: A Trend Takes Shape.” America’s Quarterly. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[38]World Drug Report: Drug Statistics and Trends.” (2010). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[39]Closer to home – drug use in six Latin American countries in focus.” (n.d.). United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[40] Ibid.

[41]The Global State of Harm Reduction Towards an Integrated Response.” (2012). Harm Reduction International. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48]World Drug Report: Drug Statistics and Trends.” (2010). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed October 26, 2014.

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