Learning from Mexico’s Drug Problem

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When most Americans think of Mexico and drugs, they immediately think of drug cartels and the violence.

But there’s a lesser known fact about drugs in Mexico: The use of illicit drugs is extremely low. Mexico is an exporter of drugs. The primary marketplace is the United States. In a sense, without us, Mexico wouldn’t have much of a drug problem at all.

A spate of news reports have headlined the fact that Mexico’s addiction rate rose 87 percent between 2002 and 2011. The statistic comes from annual surveys, similar to those used in the U.S. to detect current and recent-past use.

What’s less well reported is that the jump in illicit drug use, from 0.8 percent of respondents to 1.5 percent, is substantially less than the rate north of the border. In the United States, our rates run around 9 percent for the same period. Even after an 87 percent increase, Mexico has a usage rate we can only wonder at and envy.

Why Are Addiction Rates in Mexico so Low?

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are two primary drivers of drug addiction: The first is environmental, including peers and culture, and the second is a genetic disposition toward addiction.

Are Hispanics more resistant to addiction? The clear answer is no. Studies show that whites and Hispanics are on par for drug abuse, with African Americans and Asians slightly lower. Racial makeup doesn’t explain the difference.

What about culture? The answer might lie here, although no one can say for certain. Mexican culture is thought to be protective, and an article in the Lancet put it this way:

The importance of the Mexican family, the country's social conservatism, and its deep Catholic roots also help explain the traditionally low incidence of substance abuse. Marcela Lopez, a health researcher with Mexico's Autonomous University, says, “Mexico has more factors of protection than risk,” and this is especially so when compared with the USA. Also important is the fact that fewer Mexicans have the time or financial freedom for the sort of recreational use that fuels much of the drug trade in Western Europe and the USA. Roughly half the population lives in poverty.

Addiction Treatment in Mexico

There’s another factor, beyond genetics and environment – the availability of treatment for substance abuse. Treatment for substance abuse is considered a right under the 1917 Mexican Constitution, and Mexican citizens can access treatment for about $5 a week. The Health Ministry funds 110 clinics in the country dedicated to early treatment and interventions. There are an additional 300 clinics in at-risk communities. The Lancet article cited above says that anyone caught with drugs is encouraged to get help and, if caught three times, treatment is mandatory.

The Obama administration seems to be aware of the system in Mexico, and this April, a new strategy to combat addiction was announced by the U.S. Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske. The announcement of more funding came just before President Obama’s trip to Mexico with the war on drugs as a major talking point. According to the Mexico Gulf Reporter: “In 2012 the [Obama] administration earmarked $9.2 billion for drug treatment and prevention. In fiscal 2014, which begins in September, the sum will increase to $10.5 billion.”

But the US Is Different

In several major respects, addiction in the U.S. is different than in Mexico. One reason is that we can afford to purchase the drugs we abuse. Why would a cartel sell to Mexicans when the same drug can go for ten times the price over the border?

But we also have a drug-friendly culture. You don’t have to look any farther than your television screen to see advertisements for drugs. While these ads aren’t for addictive substances, the culture of “Have a problem? Take a pill!” extends beyond legal substances. Currently, there is a huge uptick in prescription drugs being diverted into the illicit market.

For now, all we can do is envy Mexico’s extremely low rate of substance abuse and consider what we might adopt here to lessen our problem without actually becoming Mexico. It may not be even be possible.

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