Everything We Thought We Knew About Drug Users is Wrong
By Jorge Hernández Tinajero
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.
Jorge Hernández Tinajero is president of the Collective for a Holistic Policy Towards Drugs (CUPIHD).