Why Rise in Latino Drug Use?
Jenny Song's May 11 Observer article, "Study finds rising drug use in CMS," noted that white students used gateway drugs at higher rates in past years, but now minority student rates have reached similar levels.
This recent surge in drug use—driven primarily by minorities, mostly Latinos—illustrates why we must better understand how millions of children in immigrant families in the United States are adapting to American culture. Until then, strategies designed to prevent high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use, will fail.
Acculturation is the complicated process by which individuals of one culture adopt the language, values, identity and behaviors of another culture. A growing body of research suggests that the longer Latinos live in the U.S., the more likely they are to engage in high-risk behavior. More specifically, studies show that greater, not lower, levels of acculturation by Latino youth have been associated with increased rates of smoking, drinking and substance abuse, lower rates of family formation, and increased rates of dependence on government assistance programs.
Similarly, a study of alcohol use among Latino youth found that U.S.-born adolescents had higher levels of alcohol use than non-U.S.-born youth and that a greater length of time in the United States was associated with higher levels of drinking. These youth with higher levels of use are not "new to the community"; they have already brokered an understanding of the local norms of adolescent behavior.
Another study found that greater youth "Americanism," compared to their parents, was linked to substance use because the acculturation gap increased family stress and reduced effective parenting. The study suggested that intervention efforts targeting the acculturation process may be less effective than addressing family-related stress and parenting.
Youth violence has been found to follow many of these same patterns. A recent study found that third-generation Latinos were at greater risk of violence than first- and second-generation immigrants. Furthermore, the study found that immigrant status actually lowered the potential for violent behavior for all racial/ethnic groups in the study, except for certain subpopulations of Latino youth, such as Puerto Rican youth.
This finding highlights that, not surprisingly, even within racial and ethnic groups, there are important differences that affect behavior. Populations that appear homogenous may be very different with regard to language use, religious affiliation, value systems and country of birth. Fortunately, research also shows that culturally relevant prevention programming can provide promising venues for reducing high-risk behaviors. But the United States has a long way to go in documenting effective practices for at-risk Latino populations.
Caterina Roman is a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its sponsors, staff, or trustees.
Reprinted with the permission of the Urban Institute. © 2008 Urban Institute.
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