Drug Abuse in the Global Village
Drug Abuse in the Americas

Extent of Drug Abuse in Latin America

Little statistical data is available in regard to the prevalence of drug abuse. Annual Reports Questionnaire (U.N.) key informants report that the most important drugs abused are opiates, synthetic narcotics, cocaine and coca-leaf, cannabis, amphetamines, benzodiazepines and hypnotic sedatives. Coca-leaf annual abuse is traditional and estimated at 200,000 cases (U.N. 1988).


Volatile Solvents are reported the most prevalent drugs abused in Bolivia (about 3 per cent annually). Sedatives are the next most abused drug in Bolivia with annual abuse estimated at 2 per cent. Other drugs of concern are synthetic narcotic analgesics (annual prevalence 1 per cent), coca paste (0.2 per cent) and hallucinogens (0.08 per cent) (Annual Reports Questionnaire (U.N. 1991).

            A 1991 study on illicit drug use among school and university students shows inhalants to be the most abused drug (3.6 per cent annually). Inhalant abuse is more prevalent among university students (1.99 per cent) than school students (1.61 per cent) and women consume less than men for both school and university populations. According to the same study, other drugs abused include: cannabis (2.38 per cent), cocaine (1.66 per cent), sedatives (.63 per cent) and hallucinogens (.58 per cent) (CONAPRE 1991).


Volatile solvents are the most abused drugs, according to a students study in 10 state capitals in 1989, with an estimated prevelance of 17.3 per cent. Tranquilizers (7.2 per cent) are the next most abused drugs, followed by amphetamines (3.9 per cent), cannabis (3.4 per cent) and cocaine (0.7 per cent) (Ministry of Health 1990)

            Volatile solvents are the most abused drugs among street children, according to a 1987 survey, with annual prevalence estimated at 44 per cent and daily abuse estimated at 21.1 per cent. The corresponding estimates for school students are 14.6 per cent and 1.1 per cent respectively. Cannabis is the next most abused drug, with annual prevalence estimated at 28 per cent, and daily abuse estimated at 12 per cent, among street children. Tranquilizers are also abused, with annual prevalence estimated at 5.1 per cent among students while daily abuse is estimated at 0.5 per cent for students and 1.8 per cent for street children (U.N. 1988).

            According to a poll taken by the Sao Paulo School of Medicine in the country's 10 largest capitals, one out of every four students (first and secondary level) has already smoked cannabis or sniffed cocaine at least once in his/her life (Ministries of Health and of Justice 1989).

           The studies reported by Brazilian sources appear to focus on high risk drug abusers and students. Their findings, although indicating concern relating to drug abuse in Brazil, should be interpreted with caution due to high variability.


Cannabis is reported as the most abused drug in Chile, with an annual prevalence estimated at 7.6 per cent (1.022.239 cases) and daily abuse at 4 per cent (557.668 cases). Abuse is more prevalent among males (69 per cent) than females (31 per cent), and prevelance is highest among those between 18-25 years of age.

            Amphetamines are the next most abused drug. Annual prevalence for amphetamines is estimated at 0.7 per cent (92.944 cases) and daily abuse is about 0.2 per cent (27.883 cases). Again, most abusers are males between 18-25 years of age, while 1.4 per cent of abusers are females.

            Cocaine is the next most prevalent drug, with annual abuse estimated at 0.4 per cent and daily abuse at 0.1 per cent.

            Other drugs reported abused include hallucinogens, volatile solvents, sedatives (U.N. 1991).

            An estimated 18 per cent of the Chilean population has abused drugs at least once in their lives. Among them, 6.3 per cent are considered of high risk, and 3.2 per cent show derivative damage (CND 1991).


Cannabis is the most prevalent drug abused in Colombia. Annual abuse is estimated at 0.4 per cent, according to a 1993 study of the Santa fe Foundation and the Direccion Nacional de Estupefacientes (DNE). Cocaine is the next most abused drug (0.2 per cent). Other drugs abused are "basuco" (coca paste) with prevalence estimated at less than one percent and heroin (0.01 per cent) (U.N. 1992).

            According to a national household survey, "ever" abuse prevalence of cannabis, cocaine, "basuco" (coca paste) and opiates is estimated at 5.9 per cent (or 1.4 million persons). The highest level of ever abuse is higher for men (11.4 per cent) than women (1.9 per cent) (National Household Survey 1993).

            Ever abuse of cannabis is the highest (5.3 per cent). Males abusers (10.4 per cent) exceed female (1.7 per cent) abusers. Abuse of both cocaine and "basuco" (coca paste) are estimated at 1.5 per cent, with higher abuse among males (about 3 per cent) than females (about 0.5 per cent). Heroin abuse is estimated at 0.05 per cent (National Household Survey 1993).

            Non medical abuse of psychoactive medicines and inhalants is estimated at about 8.4 per cent (almost two million people). Ever prevalence is higher for females (9.2 per cent) than males (7.2 per cent). Tranquilizers are the most abused (4.1 per cent), women (4.9 per cent) abusers exceed men (3 per cent). Abuse of sedatives such as barbiturates are estimated at 0.4 per cent, and amphetamines at about 0.6 per cent. Abuse of inhalants is about 3.8 per cent (National Household Survey 1993).

            According to a study on drug consumption among secondary school students, 8.7 per cent abuse psychoactive substances. Of all abusers, 70 per cent abused drugs several times over their lifetime, 4 per cent abused drugs for a period of six months and 16 per cent consumed during two years or more. The most abused drugs were tranquilizers (69 per cent), marijuana (30 per cent), cocaine and "basuco" (coca paste) (19 per cent each). Most of the abusers were male, aged between 16 and 21 years (46 per cent) (CMO 1990).
            About 78 per cent of the prison population consume drugs and 38 per cent are considered drug dependent. Male abusers (78 per cent) exceed females (13 per cent) (U.N. 1992).


Cannabis and tranquilizers (4.2 per cent each) are the most prevalent drugs abused in Ecuador according to a representative random sample of the Ecuador population. Abuse of tranquilizers is more prevalent among women (57 per cent) than men (43 per cent) while cannabis abuse is more prevalent among men (93 per cent) than women (7 per cent). These are followed by narcotics (3.8 per cent), where abuse by women (53 per cent) exceeds that of men (47 per cent). Barbiturates and inhalants are less prevalent, abused by 1.8 per cent and 1.7 per cent of the population respectively. Women (54 per cent) abuse barbiturate more than men (46 per cent), while men (59 per cent) abuse inhalants more than women (41 per cent)(table 1 and La Farmacodependencia en el Ecuador 1992).

 Table 1. Drug Abusers in a Random Sample of the Population, 1992.


Total            % of the                    population




255              4.2


253              4.2


231              3.8


108              1.8


103              1.7


67               1.1 

Coca Paste

60               1.0


64               1.1


1141             18.7%  

 N= 6081

 Source: La Farmacodependencia en el Ecuador. Ministerio de Salud Publica, UNDCP, 1992.


Cannabis is the most abused drug in Uruguay, according to police detention records, with annual abuse estimated lower than 1 per cent (U.N. 1991).

            Cocaine is reported the next most abused drug in Uruguay, followed by amphetamines, inhalents and hallucinogenes (U.N. 1991).


Analgesics are the most abused drug according to a study, conducted in 1988, of the population over 12 years of age. Abuse in the six months prior to the study is estimated at about 8.3 per cent, followed by cannabis (5.6 per cent), tranquilizers (4.1 per cent), cocaine (1.7 per cent) and heroin (1.0 per cent) (Galicia, 1988).

Table 1. Drug abuse by type and frequency in Venezuela in 1988.

Type of Drug

Last Six Months











































* Abuse in the last 30 days.
Occasionally: up to seven times a week.
Daily: every day.
Source: Plan Autonomico Drogodependencia, Galicia, 1988.