Whites More Likely to Abuse Drugs

Here’s a fact that may come as a real shock to people, especially given the massive disparity in the number of arrests, convictions and prison terms for drugs — black people are actually less likely to use and abuse drugs than white people. Another new study confirms that.

“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.

From 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested at a rate of at least 2.8 times that of whites, and as high as 5.5 times. Those numbers do not lie, they reveal something utterly shameful. They reveal, as Michelle Alexander puts it, a new Jim Crow system.

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  • roggg

    I wonder whether and to what extent the racist drug enforcement practices cause the difference in drug use and abuse,

  • This proves that to protect our children, we have to crack down harder on the “urban” sources of these drugs.

  • scienceavenger

    If economic status is controlled for, then what is the explanation for why whites seem more abusive than those other groups? I assumed once the relevant variables were taken into account, whites, blacks and hispanics would come out about the same.

  • Abdul Alhazred

    But more likely to be mixed up with gangs, right?

    I see the underlying issue as being economic rather than racial.

    Note: I also favor ending the “War on Drugs”.

  • alwayscurious

    Another report begging to be “unskewed”.

  • carlie

    #2 – that was also exactly my first thought as to how they’d spin this.

    Recently my hometown was in the local/regional news as a drug center, a story based on a several-month investigation. Not until three-quarters of the way through the story was there a single sentence that the centers of operation were X (my town), and also towns y and z and q. Then those other towns were never mentioned again, and the wrap-up was all about the terrors of my town. The only distinctions between the towns are that the per capita income in mine is significantly lower than in the others, and it has a much higher percentage of hispanic and black citizens in the population than they do. So there you go, awesome unbiased reporting.

  • ethanol

    There are some problems with this comparison. For one, the study corrected for socioeconomic status, and because the racial distribution of wealth is anything but proportional, the original percentages may not show the same trends. Put another way, the comparison you made would be appropriate if the arrests were also corrected for socioeconomic status. The other problem is that the study only focuses on abuse disorders, not use. Because our drug laws are crafted around arbitrarily punishing users, not preventing drug abuse, abuse levels are the wrong parameter to use for this comparison unless they are universally proportional to use.

  • Matt G

    Reminds me of the anti-drug ad which says that 40% of child drug use is urban, and then asks where people suppose the other 60% happens. The video shows two white suburban kids biking to someone’s back yard and lighting up.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … alcohol or other drugs …

    Bravo! This is so much more factual than the standard “drugs or alcohol” phrasing usually seen in reports and reportage.

  • Alverant

    And when people get out of jail/prison for minor drug offenses, which group is going to have a harder time buying a gun legally and will be considered a “law abiding gun owner”? For example Rush Limbaugh abused drugs and AFAIK he didn’t give up his guns and is still a member of the NRA.

  • One hypothesis I’m entertaining at the moment is that white drug abusers are more likely to get a free pass. If they’re less likely to be arrested, that reduces the power of legal deterrents, and this might even lead to cultural rationalizations: “I don’t have a serious drug problem because if it was serious, I’d get arrested.” The racist assumption that minorities are bigger drug abusers might also be a factor, leading to the rationalization that white person X can’t be an abuser because abuse is a “black thing.” This might lead some people to assume a case of habitual drug abuse in a white person is just recreational, and thus below the threshold of intervention.

    Of course, that’s probably just a couple threads in the whole socioeconomic tapestry.

    And +1 vote for ending the “War on Drugs.” It needs to be treated as a medical and social problem, not a criminal one.

  • As I recall from similar studies, whites are more likely to abuse legal addictive substances such as alcohol and prescription pills, which are easier to obtain.

    People are not arrested simply for being an alcoholic, and prescription fraud to feed a valium or oxycodone addiction is far more likely to send the prescribing physician to jail while the addict gets rehab. Plus, wealthy people — who are overwhelmingly white — can afford better legal representation and get sentences reduced to rehab while poorer people — who are much more likely to be a racial or ethnic minority — will almost certainly face prison time. Add in the undeniable racial bias in the way laws are written and enforced, and there you go.

    Yeah, it is fucked up.

  • Brandon

    I was about to point out what Gregory already did above – these abuse rates shouldn’t necessarily be expected to correlate with arrest rates, as arrests are (presumably) for illegal drugs, while the abuse detailed in this article includes legal drugs. I’m not say there’s not a problem, but it isn’t shown by this study.

  • John Horstman

    @3: Racism accounts for differential treatment of White and non-White drug abusers; Whites are less likely to face the kind of social or legal censure that might disrupt a pattern of addiction. Also, though the study corrected for economic status, that’s a snapshot (this study did not use longitudinal data, so it was not correcting for economic status over a period of time). A White and a Black person who are at the same income and wealth levels RIGHT NOW are not necessarily going to be at the same levels ten years from now, nor were they necessarily at the same levels ten years ago. The Black person is statistically more likely to have fallen to lower economic status (and to have started out at a lower status); given that drug abuse describes an ongoing pattern of behavior, racialized poverty could still impact the results even if one corrects for present economic status. These are just a few possibilities – a survey like this can’t establish causation, so any speculation about WHY we see these results is exactly that, speculation.

    @8: If only it went on to question why getting high is seen as a problem in the first place…

  • Sorry about the language policing, but can we drop the word ‘abuse’ and remember to just say ‘use’unless the context clearly demands otherwise? ‘Abuse’ implies pathology – that someone uses a drug either because they are evil – and deserve punishment – or sick – and require treatment against their wishes.

    There is no reason to presume that a drug user is a drug abuser (and indeed, in the case of the currently-legal drugs alcohol and caffeine, we pretty much never do make such a presumption), and by conflating the two terms, we perpetuate the stigma that surrounds drug use, which is something that needs to be broken before there will be sufficient force of public opinion behind ending the judicial persecution of drug users. By comparison, we no longer presume that sexual minorities are either evil or ill (apart from a minority of vocal bigots) and look at the gains that have been made in terms of fair treatment for them.

  • khms

    we perpetuate the stigma that surrounds drug use, which is something that needs to be broken before there will be sufficient force of public opinion behind ending the judicial persecution of drug users.

    I don’t think so. What you need is not people thinking it’s all fine and dandy, you need people thinking the War On Some Drugs is the wrong way to deal with the problem – which is what’s gradually happening here in Europe.

    I don’t particularly want people to think it’s just fine. But there’s lots of stuff that’s not fine that doesn’t get people thrown into jail. This should be one of those. (Well, at least as long your drug use doesn’t harm or endanger other people. Then, some sort of sentence might be appropriate. See drunk driving. Or public smoking laws.)

    Remember the Prohibition (War on Some Drugs, revision 1.0)?

  • Nick Gotts (formerly KG)

    Abuse drugs? You mean like: “This is really lousy heroin. Honestly, I’ve got higher on cough mixture.”?

  • martinc

    Re 17:

    Yeah “abuse drugs” brings up images of a guy swearing at his bong. Reminds me of one of my favorite ‘word meaning changes’ that appears in headlines all the time: “Man Shot; Remains Critical” … well he would, wouldn’t he?

  • martinc

    I wish I knew more about the methodology of this study (it just says “Using data from 72,561 youth interviewed for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health”). Sounds like they just asked kids whether they had taken drugs or alcohol. If so, clearly some of them – the more paranoid among them – would deny it, but be lying. That would be the case no matter how much they were assured of confidentiality. Now a certain percentage of lying doesn’t invalidate the conclusions drawn about race, but it does if there is reason to believe that racial groups were likely to differ in how paranoid they were about saying they took drugs … like for instance if they were aware that certain racial groups were more likely to be randomly searched and arrested for drug possession … oh, wait …

    Note that I accept the ample evidence suggesting African-Americans are over-targeted in stop-and-search policing … but I can see a possibility that that very situation might have resulted in under-reporting of African-American kids’ drug use.

  • dingojack

    How is ‘taking drugs’ defined?

    For example:

    Would it include or exclude Pacific Islanders that drank Kava (Piper methysticum) in the last 6 months?

    Would it include or exclude Rastafarians who smoked Marijuana in the last 6 months?

    Would it include or exclude those kids taking Ritalin, antidepressants or the like?

    Would it include or exclude jocks taking ‘vitamin supplements’ or the like?

    And so on.

    Show me the methodology.


  • Minor correction: this study actually seems to be about two years old. Still very important, of course.