Drug and alcohol use, problems and availability among students in Mexico and Canada




Author: Ma. Elena CASTRO,, Marcelo VALENCIA,, Reginald G. SMART,
Pages: 41 to 48
Creation Date: 1979/01/01

Drug and alcohol use, problems and availability among students in Mexico and Canada

Ma. Elena CASTRO,
Marcelo VALENCIA, Centro Mexicano de Estudios en Salud Mental, Mexico and
Reginald G. SMART, Addiction Research Foundation, Toronto, Canada

Both drug and alcohol problems are looked upon as international problems. Treaties and international agreements about drugs have been in existence for about 70 years. Increasing interest is being taken in making international agreements concerning alcohol (Brunn, et al., 1975). It is recognized too, that current worldwide trends in alcohol consumption (Sulkunen, 1977) highlight marked similarities among many countries in patterns of use. Also, references to the similarity in drug use patterns from one country to another are frequently made. However empirical studies involving data collected in different countries with similar instruments are rare. The present paper describes similarities in the frequency and types of alcohol and drug problems experienced by young people in Canada and in Mexico.

It could be argued that similarities in alcohol and drug use should be considerable among young people in different countries. An international youth culture, largely American in origin, has developed, marked by common tastes in music, dress, movies and other recreational pursuits. Visitors to cities in Canada and Mexico would have no doubt of the predominance of the international youth culture. Apparently no studies have been undertaken comparing Canada and Mexico with regard to alcohol and drug use.

Wellisch and Hays (1974) compared cities in Mexico and the U.S.A. and found similar emographic covariates of drug use but higher rates of use in the U.S.A.

Detailed predictions for Canada and Mexico are difficult to make but in both countries alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are the most commonly used drugs (Castro, 1976; Smart and Goodstadt, 1977). Traditionally, Mexico has had more problems with marijuana and inhalants and Canada more with hallucinogens. Perceived availability of drugs has been found to be a good predictor of drug use in Canada (Smart, 1977) and it may be that the most popular drugs in Mexico relative to Canada are those which are seen to be more available.

Numerous cultural differences between Mexico and Canada make it difficult to predict differences in alcohol and drug problems but a few predictions can be made. Canada is a country with many young people in school. Contemporary values in Canada emphasize rather tight legal and social controls over youthful drinking and drug use. For example, strict drinking age laws are enforced and there is a large number of convictions for possession of small amounts of cannabis (37,000 convictions for possession in 1978). Mexican society tends to be more tolerant of youthful (especially male) drinking and possession of small amounts of cannabis is allowed under the law. This should mean that Mexican youth experience fewer problems with alcohol and drugs involving contact with the police. However, early dropout from school is more characteristic of Mexico than of Canada.

Another difference is in the relative freedom allowed to males and females. In Mexico, girls of high school age lead more protected lives than in Canada and are subject to more parental controls which should limit their access to drugs. However, Mexican culture tends to be more permissive with boys and this could lead to more opportunities for drug use among young males. In Canada, controls on males and females appear to be more equal. It would be expected that with regard to alcohol and illicit drugs, the ratio of male to female users would be lower than in Mexico. The difference should be smaller for prescription drugs in which parental control and the element of risk-taking would be much lower.

The detailed aims of this study were to compare large samples of students in Canada and Mexico in terms of:

  1. The frequency of alcohol and drug use in the total samples and among males and females separately;

  2. The frequency of alcohol and drug problems in the total samples and among drug users;

  3. The availability of alcohol and drugs; and

  4. The frequency of various problems experienced, e.g., with the police, family members, or problems requiring treatment or voluntary restriction of alcohol/drug use.

In both countries the same scales were used for alcohol and drug problems and for the availability of drugs.


Sample selection: Canada

The sample for this study was drawn from the province of Ontario. It included students in grades 7, 9, 11 and 13 from 240 classes in 104 schools. This sample was selected to be representative of all areas of Ontario. A total of 4,687 students was obtained. Essentially, a stratified proportionate sampling plan was used. The sample should give a good estimate of alcohol and drug use in the province of Ontario except that one area (Midwest) was somewhat under-sampled. A snowstorm during the time of the data collection reduced the size of the sample in this area. Details about the sampling procedure used are contained in the report by Smart and Goodstadt (1977).

Sample selection: Mexico

The population under study was the total number of students between 14 and 18 years attending secondary, preparatory, commercial and technical schools in the Federal District of Mexico City and the metropolitan area. This region contains urban, suburban, rural areas and some farms. It should give a reasonable comparison to Ontario except that it involves a larger population (13 million compared with 8 million) and a higher proportion of urban dwellers.

The sample was selected from information made available by the Secretary of Education regarding the number of schools, number of groups, and the tota number of students in each school. The sampling was in two stages: stratified by socio-economic level and by type of school. The primary sampling units were the schools and the secondary units, the group within the schools.

The schools were selected with a proportional probability to the size of the sample, according to the number of students in each school. Within each school the groups were selected at random according to the number of students between 14 to 18 years determined at the time of arrival at the school.

In each school selected, groups of about 50 students were formed, with a range of 40 to 60 students in each group. The estimates gave a sample size of approximately 4,000 students and 81 schools. The final sample size was 4,059 students drawn from 74 schools. Seven schools could not participate in the survey. Two schools were not surveyed because of a change of address, and in five schools the principals did not allow the investigators.to administer the questionnaires.


(i) Frequency of alcohol and drug use

Table 1 shows that drug use of all types was more common among Canadian than among Mexican students. Drugs with the lowest ratio were: alcohol (1:2.3), tranquillizers (1:2.8) and tobacco (1:1.4). The largest excess of Canadian over Mexican users was for cannabis (1:15.6), heroin (1:9.5) and cocaine (1:12.6).

Table 2 shows the percentages of use in the last year for males and females in Mexico and Canada. In both countries more males than females used alcohol and cannabis. Significant differences were not found between males and females in the use of sedatives and amphetamines in either country. In Canada a larger number of males than females reported use of cocaine and LSD. In Mexico it was not possible to test for differences for these drugs because so few students, either male or female, reported their use. The ratio of male to female users in the two countries was the same for drugs other than cannabis and tobacco. In Canada females were much closer to males in their use of both cannabis and tobacco than they were in MexiCo: in fact in Canada more females than males reported smoking tobacco-the opposite of Mexico.


Student alcohol and drug use in Mexico and Canada: percentage using in past 12 months





33.7 48.6
35.6 81.9
1.6 25.1
2.1 6.6
Sedatives (non-prescription)
0.9 6.0
Tranquillizers (non-prescription)
1.7 4.9
Amphetamines (non-prescription)
0.9 7.2
0.3 3.8
0.1 6.2
0.2 1.9


Student drug use in Mexico and Canada by sex: percentage using in past 12 months












Tobacco a
19.9 28.5 14.4 32.1 3 900 4 645
19.8 78.5 16.4 74.3 3 941 4 652
Cannabis b
1.3 29.4 0.2 21.1 3 945 4 655
1.5 7.0 0.6 6.2 3 931 4 645
Sedatives (non-prescription)
0.5 6.6 0.4 5.4 3 909 4 656
Tranquillizers (non-scription)
0.7 5.2 0.9 4.7 3 923 4 646
Amphetamines (non-scription)
0.5 7.7 0.4 6.7 3 916 4 649
0.1 5.0 0.1 2.6 3 929 4 650
0.1 7.3 0.0 5.0 3 893 4 652
0.1 2.0 0.0 1.9 3 895 4 640

Note. N = total students in each sample who answered drug items

ap 0.01. b p 0.05.

(ii) Frequency of alcohol and drug problems

Table 3 shows the proportion of students that reported alcohol problems. Canada has a higher percentage of drinkers than Mexico; however, the percentage of total students reporting alcohol problems in both countries is essentially the same (Canada 11.5 per cent, Mexico 12.3 per cent). Significantly higher proportions of Mexican students reported one problem but not 2, 3 or 4 problems. A somewhat higher percentage of Mexican drinkers than Canadian reported a problem (21.0 per cent compared with 14.6 per cent).


Proportion of students reporting an alcohol problem


As percentage of total students

As percentage of total users






Total drinkers
79.6 59.0 100.0 100.0
Students reporting 1 problem
9.5 10.0 11.9
Students reporting 2 problems
1.8 1.9 2.3 3.3
Students reporting 3 problems
0.2 0.36 0.3 0.62
Students reporting 4 problems
0.04 0.04 0.05 0.08

*p 0.01.


Proportion of students reporting a drug problem


As percentage of total students

As percentage of total users






Total drinkers
29.7 12.9 100.0 100.0
Students reporting 1 problem
4.9 3.0a 16.5 23.4a
Students reporting 2 problems
1.2 0.5 a 4.0 4.0 a
Students reporting 3 problems
0.4 0.07 b 1.4 0.5b
Students reporting 4 problems
0.02 0.07 0.07 0.5

ap 0.01. b p 0.001.

Table 4 shows problems associated with the use of drugs. A higher number of students in Canada present problems associated with the use of drugs (6.5 per cent) in comparison with Mexico (3.6 per cent). Mexico has a significantly higher number of students reporting one problem. Canada on the other hand, has a significantly higher number of students reporting 2 and 3 problems.

(iii) Frequency of various problem experiences

The frequencies of problems experienced by the students are shown in table 5. For problems associated both with drugs and alcohol, Canada has a higher proportion of students reporting police arrests and problems with family members. On the other hand, Mexico has larger numbers of students reporting that they wish they could use less drugs and alcohol. There is no difference between countries in the number of students reporting that they have seen or talked to a professional because of their use of drugs and alcohol.


Number and percentage of students with a problem reporting specific alcohol and drug problems


Drug problems

Alcohol problems






a22 (14.7)
148 (48.2)
a 79 (15.6)
224 (41.3)
Consulting professionals
51 (34.2) 71 (23.1) 86 (16.9) 77 (14.2)
Parents think they use too much a16 (10.7)
a16 (10.7)
69 (22.5)
a55 (10.8)
133 (24.5)
Desire to use less
b96 (64.4)
191 (62.2)
a 403 (79.4)
263 (48.5)

ap 0.01. bp 0.001.


Average availability scores * for specific substances in Mexico and Canada




2.2 3.1
1.6 2.2
Non-prescribed tranquillizers
2.3 2.5
1.6 1.9
3.5 4.0
4.0 4.2

*Students' rating of availability: (1) Impossible to obtain substance. (2) Very difficult to obtain substance. (3) Difficult to obtain substance. (4) Easy to obtain substance. (5) Very easy to obtain substance.

(iv) Availability of alcohol and drugs

Table 6 shows the mean for perceived availability for various drugs for the two countries. It can be seen that the degrees of availability are different, with a consistent tendency for Canadian students to have a higher degree of drug availability than Mexican students.

In both countries a multiple regression analysis was made to predict the use of alcohol, tobacco, heroin and cannabis within a set of variables including availability scores. The predictors were: availability for specific drugs, demographic characteristics, and the use of other drugs. For Mexico, avilability variables were poor predictors with the exception of availability for tobacco and alcohol (R square = 0.17). In Canada, all availability variables were good predictors for the use of alcohol, heroin, tobacco and cannabis (R square = 0.42, 0.28, 0.37, and 0.48 respectively).


The data clearly show similarities and differences regarding drug use and drug problems in Mexico and Canada.

Considerably larger numbers of students in Canada than Mexico use all types of drugs. In Mexico, only about 20 per cent of the total population aged 14 to 18 years goes to school. The remainder have dropped out of school and work or have other activities not included in the types of school studied. Other studies, (Natera, 1977; Leal, 1977; Chavez 1977) showed that the use of drugs in non-student populations is high. In Canada nearly 80 per cent of the 14 to 18 year old population would be in school. It could be expected that in Mexico most drug users would be found in non-student populations, while in Canada most users would attend school.

The data provide limited support for the hypothesis that the cultural differences for males and females in Mexico and Canada are reflected in differences in drug use between the sexes. For both cannabis and tobacco, females in Canada showed rates closer to or higher than males, whereas in Mexico, females used them less

often than males. This may suggest that tighter social controls over girls in Mexico lead to lower rates of drug use than in Canada.

The differences in types of social and legal controls do indicate the problems associated with drug use. In Canada, most users of drugs and alcohol reported having problems with the police. In Mexico most users reported the wish to use less drugs and alcohol and rarely had contacts with police. It could be argued that in Mexico there is more internal control (from the student) than external control (from the police and family members) than occurs in Canada. The data found for Mexico are supported by Chao and Castro (1976), who used Rotter's Scale of Locus of Control with a sample of students. In this study drug users had a high degree of internal control of their own behaviour with no differences by sex, age or socio-cultural level.

In Mexico perceived availability of all drugs was lower than in Canada and did not predict the use of drugs. However, in Canada perceived availability was a good predictor of the use of alcohol, tobacco, heroin and cannabis. The data on availability are consistent however with those for numbers of users as the Canadian sample had more users of all drugs. It may be that where availability of drugs is very low it will be a poor predictor of drug use. In situations where drugs are not very accessible, special efforts to find them would be necessary and perhaps only students with strong personal and social needs would make the effort to do so.

Although speculations about an international youth culture are often made, what stands out most in this study is the lack of similarities. In Canada there is far more drug use, more perceived availability of drugs and more use of cannabis and tobacco by females: drug problems here are often problems with police. In Mexico drugs are infrequently used and are not seen to be available; drug problems less often involve police and more often involve attempts at internal control.


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