Adapting to new country leads to drug abuse, study says


The pressure of adapting to a new country and culture can often lead Hispanic immigrants to drug and alcohol abuse, according to a new study.

English-speaking Latinos reported illegal drug use at a rate 13 times higher than their Spanish-speaking peers, the study said.

Scott Akin, Oregon State University sociologist, said he and his three co-authors are the first to look at Hispanic immigrants in the Pacific Northwest, where they tend to be more dispersed and isolated from the churches, cultural centers and family that would tie them to their culture.

"Basically, it's a package deal," Akins said. "When immigrants come to us, they oftentimes get greater job security, more economic benefits, certainly a better quality of life. But along with this you also get another type of thing, such as a much more tolerant attitude toward drug use and a more tolerant attitude toward sex."

Akins used data from a 2003 telephone survey of 6,713 adult Washington state residents.

There were 1,690 Hispanics, but not all were recent immigrants. Of those, about 700 answered survey questions in Spanish and about 950 answered in English.

Akins measured their level of acculturation by which language they spoke. The study showed 7.2 percent of English-speaking Latinos reported using illegal drugs in the previous month, compared with less than — percent of Spanish speakers.

English speakers also reported more binge drinking. The average for non-Hispanic whites was 6.4 percent.

Portland-area drug and alcohol treatment experts agree that the pressures of immigrating can fuel an existing addiction or spark new substance abuse.

They say immigrants face learning a language, finding a home and working two or more jobs, and they often grapple with loneliness.

"That's exactly what we see," says Chris Farentinos, director of ChangePoint, a Portland-based drug and alcohol treatment center where 20 percent of clients speak Spanish. "When they arrive, there's a period of time where they're very poor. As their language skills increase, their disposable income is also increasing, and they have more access to drugs and alcohol."

Drug and alcohol abuse cut across cultures, added Michael Ann Benchoff, program manager for the Family Latino Outreach and Addictions Treatment program, which serves homeless, Spanish-speaking addicts.

But Benchoff questioned whether Spanish speakers trusted the survey-takers enough to answer truthfully about their drug and alcohol habits. Addiction carries a stigma in Latino culture, and adults may want to conceal their drug use from a stranger.

The study will be published next spring in the Journal of Drug Issues.

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