Everything We Thought We Knew About Drug Users is Wrong

Would you believe that people who use drugs are, on average, more educated than the average citizen? Or that less than 10 percent are unemployed? 

Around the world, the mythology of the drug user – as a desperate, ill or uncontrollable person – has often influenced policies that were poorly informed about actual drug use.

Mexico is no different. 

Many policymakers conflate people who use drugs with “addicts”. The fact, however, is that these broad-stroke generalities fail to see the complexity of drug consumption, which can range from problematic to experimental (with so much in between). 

This diversity of drug use patterns in Mexico was revealed in a recent survey of the adult population of Mexico City by Colectivo por una Política Integral hacia las Drogas A.C. (CuPIHD). The survey consisted of 350 questions and was carried out in February and March 2011. The sample size was 429 people with 310 males and 119 women and with an average age of 28.7.

CuPIHD found that more than a quarter of all people who use drugs had at least attended high school (27.9) while more than half had gone on to obtain some university education (54%). This is higher than the general Mexican population. Two out of three users surveyed said they were engaged in full-time work (69.9%), a little less than half are actively studying (43.7%) and one out of five surveyed both work and study (22%). Only one out of 10 of those surveyed indicated that they are currently unemployed or working without pay (9.9%).

While these results may show a more benign picture of people who use drugs, it masks some of the risks they face. CuPIHD found that almost 70 percent of people who use drugs have been arrested by police forces, and the same percentage claim to have been the victims of police extortion.

CuPIHD also explored relationships of drug users with their family, justice institutions and peers, as well as their links with the market and some illegal activities in the context of Mexican law. 

While there is a great diversity in the kinds of drugs used, frequency of use and underlying social issues, the survey reveals we may not know as much about drug users as we think. If this is indeed the case, then perhaps our policies were designed with some false assumptions. 

At the very least, considering almost all of those surveyed had some sort of work or daily activity (91.6%), it should be recommended that society do a better job of integrating people who use drugs in the formation of public policies that affect them, and not treat them only as criminals or ill people.

The survey can be viewed here

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Very interestig research and findings.I will like to be regularly informed on follow up

Jorge Laffitte

The word 'drug' covers a multitude of sins, so to speak. You might not care if your kids smoke pot, but I seriously doubt you'd like to find them shooting up black tar heroin in the bathroom. I do know that not one Native American tribe in the US uses marijuana in any of their religious rituals. The Native American Religion, founded by the Comanche warrior Quanah Parker, uses payote in their ceremonies. I believe drug use is strictly a person decision. I am 70 years old and was the only member of my family not to smoke cigarettes. I am probably the only person I know in my peer group who has never done drugs of any kind. Legal, illegal, prescription. It is a choice.

Thanks for the comment Anna.

Drug decriminalization is long overdue, all the violence and crime associated are worst than the addiction itself. The appeal of the forbidden would also disappear among young people. The tax collected would help educate society (especially children). The mafia will be against for the business would suffer.

Thanks JC,

It's interesting to imagine what some regulated approach might bring. Whatever the response some alternative policies are needed. One of the great drawbacks of the current approach is that it eliminates ANY alternative. It is a very harsh, broad-stroke and I agree with you that it's failed.

Thanks for the comment.

I agree with many of the survey findings and I am living in S Mexico where I interact with a high % of local drug users, although not a drug user myself. As a US citizen though, it always shocks me how freely marijuana is consumed in public here-at least in the historic center of town. Also public drunkness and lewd behavior: overt sexual acts in public between couples which seems to have no connection to alcohol nor drug use. I imagine the former practice is linked with maintaining family relationships, living in an extended family structure forces users to seek out places--other than where they live-- to use. And yes, there are many and consistent daily, weekly, monthly stories of police intimidation, extortion even violence. Thanks for sharing the findings which correlate with earlier studies on the profile of drug users in the States. It's important to keep challenging our ignorance and seek valid information w/out making gross and often erroneous assumptions.

the continuing contradiction between our uninformed, prejudiced view of social issues, which we heartfully defend, and whats is really going on presented out of carefully conducted researches.

It's true Luiz, We need more (and better) research to inform our policies.

It is long past time to treat people as criminals merely because they use drugs. If they harm others, then there may be a crime they've committed. Otherwise, not. When we stop criminalizing drug use, our astronomical prison population (and astronomical costs) will be greatly reduced.

Thanks Judith. Bringing down our prison population should be one major goal! It's a national shame.

The subject of this article is absolutely true. You would never even suspect most drug users, because that is what they are, users, not abusers. And the fact is prohibition does not work, ever, for anything. Murder is prohibited but it happens every day. Alcohol and tobacco are the worst drugs available and they are legal. How does this make sense? Legalize all drugs, regulate and educate, that is the only solution. Doing these things would solve so many problems and save so many people that I simply can't believe that we, as intelligent beings, would even hesitate to implement them.

Very true Steve. What's worse, as the article shows, we know so little about the actual behavior itself (how people begin using, problematic vs. infrequent us, etc.) It's no wonder our policies are failing.

interesting article and i think it reveals one very important fact of our lives that in the present scenario ( our education , jobs, social setups) real enjoyment and happiness is absent so only changing policies would not help we have to take some serious steps for providing mental satisfaction to people

That's very true Abdullah. It seems we often look at everything but the underlying causes of problematic drug use.

It would be interesting to know the statistics for people of my age (60) and older. Cannabis especially has huge benefits for us oldies.

The title of this article is wrong. Everything we thought we knew about drug users is not wrong, somethings, yet not everything. Decent article by Jorge Hernández Tinajero however, sweeping generalizations and absolutes must be avoided when researching the critical details. We must use both objective and subjective analysis to pursue solutions and sensationalizing a title to draw in more readers is not cool; with that being said we must pray and fight to solve the drug pandemic that faces our world but we must watch how we address and treat our laws because many of them are healthy. God knows human beings have a bent toward resisting being told what they can and or can not do yet without order there is chaos. Many drugs are illegal because they alter our state of reason and even on our best day if no one used drugs unilateral reason would still be a challenge to bring forth. So I propose continued legal research while also reinforcing and adding to our existing deterrents. Drugs that alter our reasoning should be monitored, regulated and in a variety of cases prohibited irrespective of whether someone can function while using them. Education, education and more education under God is the best way to eradicate the drug problem world wide. With that education comes accepting facts and taking action for a healthier society. Additionally we must keep drugs that indirectly or directly promote violent and uncivilized behavior from proliferating. My advice is that if it is illegal do not do it. If you can not live with a particular law or laws fight to change them, just do not break them in doing so, moreover have a clear picture as to the outcome your changes may produce. Lastly, never ever try to take God out of the equation. What would Jesus do? I believe Christ would instruct us to put illegal drugs down because there is much work for us to do with our natural talents. He came not to do away with the law yet to fulfill it. That means complete it, refine it, clarify it and above all us else live it. It is his example we should follow!

So Jesus is telling you to keep putting non violent drug users in Prison? Nice guy..

Hi Zale and GoalD,

Thanks for the comment. I can see your point view. It's fine to disapprove of drug use (legal or illegal) yet the law is a pretty blunt instrument to use, especially with regards to someone's health. But religion and faith have been a sources of incredible strength for people trying to lead lives of abstinence. So I do think they have something to offer (though always on a voluntary basis).

I also tend to view religion on similar grounds. Given the themes of mercy and compassion
I have a hard time imagining that condemnation and prison would be the go-to policy options. In any case, it is an interesting discussion and one worth exploring deeper.

Thanks again to both of you for your thoughts.

Please send me information so I have a better understanding of my son & his addiction's. Anything is helpful.

Dear Tonya,

Thank you for sharing. There are lots of sources of information to learn more. Unfortunately in serious issues of dependency, the science is not very developed and it is very hard to know how to respond. I am not a professional counselor so I would advise consulting with an expert. It may also be helpful to seek out a diversity of opinions as there are many routes in and out of dependency and thus there is no 'right' way (as far as I know). Also, seek out family support groups. I know there is very little for families but the stigma of drug use is not limited to people who use drugs but can involve families as well. It's important to work with people and learn about other's experiences.

For policy updates you are welcome to sign up for email updates in the top right hand corner but not all of these will be relevant. Some may be. It's up to you.

Again, I have to emphasize - I am not a professional. So please try to make sure you are getting expert advice.

Good luck and best wishes,

I am an activist/community organizer and a child of Harlem. The narrative about drug use has been a major distortion of the reality of drug use in this country. Based on my life experience (I am 71 years old) the majority of people that use drugs tend to get up every morning, feed their kids, and go to work. When they come home they go to the bar, drink, smoke, sniff cocaine, and go home to prepare to go to work the next day. They are workers, business people, church goers, and hustlers. The stereotypes depicted by the supporters of the racist war on drugs do exist but are an infinitesimal part of the drug using population. As long as the media and law enforcement (that giant jobs program) control the narrative about drugs, with their false dichotomy of drugs licit and illicit, this racist policy of social control will continue. Every human being on the planet should have the ultimate say so about what he/she will put in her body, no one else. Put the same system that is in place for the pharmaceutical industry, tell the people all the plus and negatives of the product and then let them make their own choice.

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