As Youth Drug Use Rises, Chile Tries Treatment Rather Than Punishment

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

Substance abuse by at-risk children and adolescents in Chile is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge that can have a negative effect on the country’s development.

Normally Chile is marked as an example of successful human development in Latin America. More than its immediate neighbors, the country is known for its strong economy and is characterized by its progressive attitude on social issues. Despite (or perhaps because of) these impressive achievements, the country is also fighting certain problems that sometimes come with purchasing power, including the increased consumption of illicit substances.

Chile typically ranks among the highest in consumption levels among secondary education students in the region. The rates show an upward spiral due to an increase in the popularity of inhalants and cocaine derivatives. In 2009, for example, the country registered the highest prevalence of cocaine among secondary students of any country in the Americas. A rate of 6.7 percent was trailed by the United States at 4.6 percent.

*This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of the Inter-American Development Bank’s blog Sin Miedos. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

As part of an effort to mitigate the damage, Chile has been working with children charged with drug crimes to offer them an assortment of assistance options, in order to encourage healthier habits, lower violence rates and improve the opportunity for reintegration into family and social life.

The drug and alcohol treatement program for adolescent offenders, known by its Spanish acronym PAMOH, is a rehabilitation and social adjustment initiative for juvenile delinquents and young adults involved in drugs in the city of Valparaíso. Launched in 2010, this program applies the therapeutic focus of the Model for Human Occupation (MOHO). The program is designed to offer substance abuse treatment for juvenile delinquents between the ages of 14 and 18, but help is offered until the program participants turn 20. The focus of the program is based on the identification of key beneficiaries, applied in ways that encourage the formation of positive habits and an improvement of physical and mental capacities.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Chile

PAMOH was established as a result of Law 20.084, which stipulates ample resources for the treatment of adolescents with drug charges and promotes the coordination of the Health, Justice and Interior Ministries. The program supports a holistic approach centered on health (as opposed to those that favor the law and emphasize punishment) to treat young drug users. Before the program was launched, a link was discovered between the consumption of drugs and juvenile delinquency; approximately 80 percent of young people with a criminal charge were also marijuana consumers, while 50 percent declared that they consumed derivatives of cocaine. However, the juvenile delinquents that consumed marijuana only received treatment in 27 percent of the cases, while those who indicated that they used cocaine received treatment in just 46 percent of the cases.

The program created an extensive diagnostic to identify the risk factors for the program participants. As part of the process, they constructed profiles that included their family histories, health, patterns of daily activities, interests, values and needs. The treatment-related part of the program was centered on the development of healthy routines through sessions of individual and group therapy. Free time activities included trips to public places, sports, team-building projects and other activities designed to improve the social abilities of the participants. All of these activities were adapted depending on the customs and habits of people from Valparaíso in order for the program to be more accessible to the participants.

Although the program still lacks a complete evaluation, it seems to offer a positive focus for substance abuse in a social and health context rather than in a criminal context.

One critical component of the program was related to the reinsertion of the participants into the job market. They established a key alliance with Colegio Técnico Industrial de Valparaíso. The program could give recently enrolled participants information on possible work outings through distinctive courses offered by the institution. Through this alliance emerged a number of candidates working to become mechanics, electricians and welders. The hope was that the effort to offer career options would make sense to the participants — offering long-term horizons would reduce relapses and the possibility of worsening the situation.

The program also placed special emphasis on systems of control and evaluation, including a daily journal under the responsibility of the program coordinators where they recorded the performance of each participant day to day in addition to the evaluation sheets. They also performed an evaluation of the program as part of the “Good Practices in Prevention of Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean,” a program co-founded in 2012 by the Universidad de Chile, the BID Inter-American Development Bank and the Open Society Foundations.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

The observed results included improvements in physical, mental and sexual health of the participants. They also observed improvements related to the participants’ ability to relate to others and adapt to challenging circumstances, all contributing to the participants’ eventual reintegration into the workforce and society more broadly. At the time of the evaluation, however, no students had left the program, so it was impossible to measure the success of a program graduate.

Although the program still lacks a complete evaluation, it seems to offer a positive focus for substance abuse in a social and health context rather than in a criminal context. It is still difficult to evaluate the efficacy of the program without knowing the social and occupational effects it has on students after their time as participants. While program expansion is feasible, it is important to first investigate the results that the program has had on previous participants, considering as well the challenges of relapses, work situations and family and social relations. However, the program is a good example of how governments can approach juvenile delinquency and substance abuse in a productive manner, transforming its effects on vulnerable segments of the population. 

*This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of the Inter-American Development Bank’s blog Sin Miedos. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+