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Substance use and abuse across cultures and ethnicities is fairly balanced. Drug use rates for Hispanics fall somewhere between the slightly lower rates for whites and slightly higher rates for African-Americans. But University of Houston Professor Avelardo Valdez says Latinos face different consequences for drug use than other cultural groups. He says Hispanics have higher incarceration rates for drug offenses and lower treatment rates than other ethnic groups.
"It should be seen as something that needs to be treated, just as we treat diabetes and just as we treat cancer. And if we don't, if we continue to treat it within a criminal model -- you know which is punishing people, throwing people -- incarcerating people for the use of drugs -- that's not going to solve it."
The Latino population in Texas is especially vulnerable to drug problems. The Hispanic population is rapidly increasing, but education and economic levels are not rising. Furthermore, Texas and Houston serve as a gateway for drug trafficking. UH Professor Alice Cepeda says because much of the North American drug supply comes from Mexico, Latinos in Texas have increased access to drugs.
"Trafficking is a major -- a major issue and in particular our proximity to Mexico the routes -- the drug routes are obviously there. Even though there's been a lot of interdiction efforts, you know to stop the flow of drugs, I think that it's a larger problem than we really think."
Heroin is the drug of choice for abusers in Houston. Border towns are more likely to have a prescription drug problem. The National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse is sponsoring the training of young researchers and clinicians on how to tackle the problem among Latinos. Avelardo says drug prevention and treatment should be tailored for this population.
"Culturally relevant prevention programs that are going to reach that community. Treatment that may deal with some of the cultural differences of Hispanics. For instance, the strong family ties. You really can't just treat the individual, but you have to approach the individual within his family network."
As the Latino population acculturates to the U.S., future generations are as much as 50 percent more likely than their parents to engage in substance abuse. The lowest rates are among immigrants, but drug use rises significantly among second- and third-generation U.S. born Latinos. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.