Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Mexican-American Youth Drug Use and Acculturation: A Note on the Mitigating Effects of Contextual Dynamics

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Mexican-American Youth Drug Use and Acculturation: A Note on the Mitigating Effects of Contextual Dynamics

Article excerpt

This study reexamines the relationship between acculturation and illicit drug use among a sample of Mexican-American adolescents in South Texas (n=3,186). Logistic regression was used to test the relationship between marijuana and cocaine use and two acculturation scales while controlling for structural properties and social dynamics characterizing use environment. Findings suggest that acculturation correlates with increased use of both substances when operationalized by language but not when measurement is based in social interaction. Gang membership was found to be a more explanative indicator of drug use than acculturation, suggesting that Mexican-American drug use is better understood through utilization of models factoring delinquent peer effects.


American illicit drug activity and attempts to regulate it have long been situated within the contexts of race and ethnicity. Associations of the Irish and alcohol, the Chinese and opium, and African Americans and crack are fixed stereotypes in the popular culture and academe. As indicated by a considerable extant literature on the topic, the association of marijuana and Mexicans, however, is perhaps the most pronounced of the ethnic drug references (Aguirre, 2004; Auerhahn, 1999; Bonnie & Whitebread, 1970,1974; Hayes & Bowery, 1931; Morgan, 1990). The designation of the entire United States and Mexican border as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), Mexican congressional support for a drug legalization bill in 2006, and general public alarm over an immigration-drugs connection suggests a normative consensus of tolerance for use in Mexico and, ostensibly, among Mexican Americans (Harrison & Kennedy, 1996; Calavita, 1994).

Equating Mexican illicit substance trafficking and use, however, blurs two distinct activities and can lead to false assumptions. An emerging body of work contends that Mexican-American ethnic identity serves as a protective factor against various risky health behaviors, including drug use (Zapata, Katims, & Yin 1998; Yin, Zapata, & Katims, 1995; Tarver, Walker, & Wallace, 2002). Acculturation, or assimilation into mainstream American culture, which presumably dilutes ethnic identity, has been observed as a common mitigating factor on Mexican-American drug use, with results generally suggesting that ethnic identity minimizes frequency of use (Yin et al., 1995). Acculturation has been operationalized widely, however, and analyzed with little attention to social context. To better assess the effect of cultural contact on illicit drug use by Mexican-American youth, this study considers distinct language and social acculturation variables, which are regressed on use while controlling for structural properties such as poverty and gang membership. Specifically, we test the competing hypotheses that Mexican ethnic identification may either (1) increase the likelihood of drug use due to an overall cultural acceptance of usage among Mexicans or (2) serve as a buffer to drug use through decreased levels of acculturation. We also examine the saliency of individual contextual elements, which may offset the acculturation-drug use relationship altogether.


Whereas social scientists, historians, and legal scholars addressing MexicanAmerican drug issues from a conflict perspective have focused on power dynamics inherent to social stratification, symbolic interactionists and behavioral scientists have examined the effects of acculturation and ethnic identity on health risk factors (Adam, Basta, LeCroy, McGuire, & Walsh, 2005; Serrano & Anderson, 2003). Acculturation is considered a process wherein two cultures come into contact, resulting in both group and individual level change. In regard to acculturation among Mexican-American youth, it is plausible to hypothesize either an enhancement or deterrent effect.

The very origins of marijuana prohibition and the emergence of drug enforcement in the United States are largely attributable to Mexican immigration during the depression era (Abadinsky, 2004; Helmer, 1975; Himmelstein, 1983; Musto, 1990; Solomon, 1966 ). …

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