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Issues of Drug Abuse in Latin America

Drug abuse and addiction are international concerns. The World Health Organization (WHO) shares, “It is estimated that 255 million people used illicit drugs, such as cannabis, amphetamines, opioids, and cocaine, in 2015 which translates into an annual prevalence of illicit drug use of 5.3%.”1

Anyone, anywhere, can struggle with drug abuse. Luckily no matter who you are or where you live, you can find recovery too.

What Is Drug Abuse?

The signs and symptoms of drug abuse include the following:

  • Ignoring obligations and responsibilities at home, school or work to use drugs instead
  • Engaging in risky behaviors you wouldn’t normally take part in if not under the influence
  • Developing interpersonal problems at work or home as a result of 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

If you or someone you love is taking an illegal drug or using a prescribed substance in amounts, ways or for reasons other than prescribed, it’s drug abuse. If this drug abuse is changing how you feel, think or act, it may be time to consider addiction treatment.

>>> READ THIS NEXT: Start with Drug Detox

Is Drug Abuse a Problem in Latin America?

Drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in Latin America, and the troubles stemming from it continue to expand. Although statistics vary by country, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) reports that binge drinking and marijuana use tend to be as prevalent and as problematic in Latin America as in the United States and Canada.2 Other drugs are similarly related to abuse and addiction issues.

Inhalant Abuse in Latin America

Inhalants are most popular among young teens in North America. However, CICAD reports that 9.95 percent of secondary school students across Brazil reported past-month use of inhalants in a 2011 survey. Additionally Latin Americans are using inhalants more frequently as they get older, and this abuse of these drugs is taking a serious toll on the health of users.

Marijuana Abuse in Latin America

Marijuana continues to grow in popularity in Latin America. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a study of six of the region’s nations, in which 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 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.3

Alcohol Abuse in Latin America

Alcohol abuse is also quite common. UNODC reports that nearly 50 percent of Chile’s population and over 47 percent of Argentina’s admit to past-month alcohol use. There is an 80 percent rate of lifetime alcohol use in both Uruguay and Ecuador. This is a problem for teens and young adults as well, as nearly 35 percent of the under-15 population in Brazil and almost 38 percent in Columbia consume alcohol each month.
The WHO reveals that approximately 246,000 people have been the victim of an alcohol-related death in Latin America.

Cocaine Abuse in Latin American

Cocaine is frequently used in Latin America. CICAD shares that twenty-seven percent of all cocaine consumed in the Americas is done so by South Americans. In Uruguay 3.5 percent of the population uses cocaine. In Peru, 1.4 percent of the population uses. Crack and cocaine paste — the initial residue that is extracted from the dried coca leaf — are popular among all age groups, but cocaine paste is growing in popularity with teens and young adults.

The Effects of Drug Abuse on Physical Health in Latin America

Any time you use a drug, there is the possibility of serious side effects. Substances like benzodiazepines and opiates cause respiratory depression and slow other vital health functions. This can lead to organ damage, brain damage and even coma and death.

HIV and AIDS are health risks among Latin American drug users. Avert explains that “There are an estimated 721,000 people who inject drugs in Latin America and the Caribbean.”4 This drug injection increases the chances for contracting HIV, a health concern affecting nearly 2.1 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean. In some Latin American countries such as Puerto Rico, over half of the people who die from HIV-related complications contracted the through injection.

Of equal concern is viral hepatitis. Harm Reduction International explains that viral forms of hepatitis only affect about 1% of the South American population on average, but “Injecting drug use is an important risk factor in parts of the region, most notably major urban areas and northern Mexico.”5 Drug use greatly increase the risk for disease. In some parts of Mexico, almost 98% of people who inject drugs have the hepatitis C antibody.

The Effects of Drug Abuse on Mental Health and Quality of Life in Latin America

Drug abuse does more than put physical health at risk. It’s physical and psychological side effects can limit quality of life. Abuse and addiction erode interpersonal and familial relationships. They create financial and legal trouble. And they impact mental health.

Mental health is a global concern, and it’s a particular concern in Latin America.

According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the following is true across Latin America:

  • At least 5% of the population struggles with depression
  • 3.4% of the population struggles with anxiety disorder
  • 1.7% struggles with dysthymia
  • 1.4% faces obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • 1% faces panic disorder
  • 1% struggles with non-affective psychoses
  • 0.8% struggles with bipolar disorder6

Any and all of these mental health concerns can overlap with substance abuse and addiction. When they do, treatment because even more necessary and important. Unfortunately PAHO explains that only 6 out of 10 Latin Americans who need mental health treatment receive it.

Attitudes Towards Addiction, Mental Health and Treatment in Latin America

Attitudes towards drug use and drug users are largely negative in Latin America despite growing awareness about these concerns as mental health and public health issues. However there is also a more relaxed opinion regarding legalization. The lack of regulation on drugs in some areas and the ease of access people — including youths — have to them may contribute to the area’s drug use statistics.

At the same time other tough laws in Latin America leave individuals afraid to seek the help they need for their substance abuse problems. According to Americas Quarterly, “Harsh anti-drug laws have failed to stem apparently rising drug use, and incarceration rates are climbing — up 40 percent on average in Mexico and South America over the last decade — with more drug users and low-level dealers behind bars.”7 Harsh laws do little to curb addiction yet leave more people in prisons and in danger.
Overdose prevention programs are few and hard to find in Latin America, and people often do not seek medical help for overdose because of worries about law enforcement.
Fortunately, some progress is being made. Chile now offers judicially supervised rehabilitation in place of jail time for some offenders. Ecuador has pending legislation to clearly outline specified amounts of drugs that are okay for transport so that those with small amounts of illicit substances will not face the same charges as those trafficking large amounts. Brazil has plans to establish rehabilitation shelters for drug-dependent individuals rather than send these individuals to prison. In Colombia citizens are now free to carry small amounts of cannabis or cocaine without fear of persecution. More and better treatment is available.

And how do you find that treatment? Reach out to Skywood Recovery. We will help you find the treatment you, as an individual, need for a long and healthy recovery.

No matter where you are in life, in addiction or in the world, we’re here to connect you to the resources you need. Reach out today at 269.280.4673.


1 Other Psychoactive Substances.” World Health Organization. 2017.

2 Report on Drug Use in the Americas.” Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission. 2011.

3 Drug Statistics and Trends.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2010.

4 HIV and AIDS in Latin America: The Caribbean Regional Overview.” Avert. 26 Mar. 2018.

5 Regional Update: Latin America.” Harm Reduction International. 2012.

6 “World Mental Health Day: Depression, the Most Common Mental Disorder.” Pan American Health Organization. 10 Oct. 2012.

7 Drug Decriminalization: A Trend Takes Shape.” Americas Quarterly. Fall 2009.