A new study shows that young black people are considerably less likely to use and abuse drugs than whites — less than any other group other than Asians, in fact — yet they are ten times more likely to be arrested for it. Time reports:
Black youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate ten times higher than that of whites. But new research shows that young African Americans are actually less likely to use drugs and less likely to develop substance use disorders, compared to whites, Native Americans, Hispanics and people of mixed race.
“Our goal is to alert people to the burden of drug problems and also to how some of our concern about who has these problems may not be true,” says Dr. Dan Blazer, senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “There’s a perception among many individuals that African Americans as a group — regardless of socioeconomic status — tend to abuse or use drugs at higher rate and this [does not support] that.”
Using data from 72,561 youth interviewed for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers found that 37% of those aged between 12 and 17 had used alcohol or other drugs at least once in the past year. Nearly 8% met criteria for a substance use disorder — either the less severe “substance abuse” diagnosis or the more problematic “substance dependence,” which is more commonly known as addiction.
The study, which was published Monday in the Archives of General Psychiatry, controlled for variables like socioeconomic status because rates of severe drug problems tend to be greater amongst the poor. Despite this, Native American youth fared worst, with 15% having a substance use disorder, compared to 9.2% for people of mixed racial heritage, 9.0% for whites, 7.7% for Hispanics, 5% for African Americans and 3.5% for Asians and Pacific Islanders.
For example, a large proportion of youth with drug problems recover without treatment. While rates of substance use disorders tend to be around 8% in the teen years, these rates dip to less than 2% for those over 26; the number of people who’ve gotten better far exceeds that which could have possibly attended treatment or even self-help groups.
That poses a problem: addiction treatment centers tend to focus on getting youth to acknowledge that they have a chronic, relapsing disease, but this — in combination with surrounding youth with peers who are also in trouble — could create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
First, we need to stop thinking that anyone who uses drugs is a drug abuser; only a tiny percentage of those who use drugs develop a real problem with them. The vast majority of drug users — even drugs like cocaine and LSD — do so intermittently, when it’s available, and go about their merry way. Second, we need to stop thinking that anyone who does develop a problem with drugs is forever doomed to be an addict or that they have to think of themselves as someone with a “disease” forever.
And no, I’m not saying this because I like to do drugs. I have smoked pot in my life but not in a very long time. I’ve never tried any other illegal drug and have little interest in doing so. I drink very rarely and only wine with dinner when I do. I am, to use the old line, as sober as a judge. But our society is hysterically delusional when it comes to drugs. We’ve turned drug use into an all-purpose boogeyman used to scare the children — and more importantly the voters, who continually support ever harsher laws to prevent the latest mortal threat.