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Racism and the War on Drugs

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.

So 80% more white kids do drugs and 1000% more black kids are arrested for it. The study also shows how ridiculous much of our hysteria in this country is about drugs:

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.

Comments

  1. D. C. Sessions says

    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.

    Which is that they might escape from their proper place in the world.

  2. says

    Speaking as someone who’s been abused by drugs (they always cost waaaaaaaaay too much and they never work as well as they did in the movies!) I gotta say that my personal experience has always been with WHITE drug users (pasty people on drugs are scary, already scaryblackmen on drugs? I don’t even want to think about it!)./s

    The single biggest reason that cops bust more black kids on drugs is that they look at the War on Drugs as the War on the Afrodregs of Society. It’s their JOB to get as many young scaryblackmen offa the streets as possible.

    You may have noticed, if you live in a nice, white or mostly white suburb that your local cops are not sitting in their cruisers waiting for an excuse to pop the 12 year olds that are swapping baseball cards of playing “Frogger” on their portable gaming console device thing. I would suggest, in the nature of a little social experimentation, that you wake up black, poor and in the ‘hood, tomorrow–just to see if there’s any difference in the level of deference required of you when dealing with the minions of lawnordure.

  3. dt says

    “…even drugs like cocaine and LSD…”

    These two substances are so different in terms of effects and abuse risk that it’s laughable to even put them in the same sentence.

  4. says

    They are in the same sentence because they share two characteristics — the public thinks of them as highly dangerous, life-killing drugs and most people who use them do so intermittently, without any serious negative effect. That doesn’t mean they have the same or even similar effects.

  5. Michael Heath says

    dt:

    These two substances [cocaine & LSD] are so different in terms of effects and abuse risk that it’s laughable to even put them in the same sentence.

    A whoosh so voluminous it blew-off my cap.

  6. harold says

    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.

    I agree that “doomed”, “addict”, and “forever” don’t make sense.

    But many people do find themselves in a situation of not being able to control substance use, this is related to the physical, biochemical impact of said substances on the brain (interacting with the baseline state, which may be more at risk), physical impact on organ systems and the brain are the problem, treatment and harm reduction do reduce harm, and the right wing pseudo-tough-guy solutions of harsh punishment and/or barking at people to use “will power” and go “cold turkey” don’t work. (No-one here has advocated either of those, of course, just mentioning them because they are common in the general population.)
    Conditions that result from the impact of chemicals on the brain and body are medical conditions. The fact that the original use of a substance was voluntary due to perceived positive effects doesn’t change this.

    As for cocaine and LSD – I agree with both sides here. Of course Ed’s point wasn’t to compare their effects. Having said that, the differences are worth noting.

    Despite their superficially dramatic effects, hallucinogens as a class have surprisingly few long term negative effects. There is some moderate evidence that some of them may increase the risk of or hasten the onset of schizophrenia in a small subset of the population. I am obviously not recommending LSD use here. However, overall, LSD and closely related drugs do not seem to be habit forming, are not associated with high short term risk (claims of people “thinking they can fly” and jumping off buildings are very poorly documented – ethanol, which I drink and enjoy, is far more associated with suicide and accidents), and have not been tied to long term physical problems in a definitive way.

    Cocaine is highly habit forming, well associated with cardiac problems and premature death, and well associated with loss of judgment and negative impact behaviors.

  7. says

    “Cocaine is highly habit forming, well associated with cardiac problems and premature death, and well associated with loss of judgment and negative impact behaviors.”.

    Is there a reptilican version of the drug that only causes the last two conditions. George W. Bush, just sayin’…

  8. Artor says

    My ex wife, a white girl, used to run with a gang and abuse alot of hard drugs. At 14, she was sent to Juvie and enrolled in NA, which, like AA, uses the line that an addict is an addict forever. She cleaned up and kicked the hard stuff, and is now healthy, fit & professional. She still indulges occasionally, but is clearly not an addict. She has nothing but disdain for AA/NA, because they lied to her. If she had accepted that she was an addict forever, that phase of her life would still be haunting her, but she’s moved on and proven that they are full of shit.

  9. wscott says

    I just skimmed the linked article, but it appears the study linked alcohol and drugs together? It would be interesting to see what the numbers look like if they split alcohol off. I say this not because I think alcohol is in every way less harmful than many illegal drugs, but because it is legal, cheap and socially accepted in most all areas. I can easily see right-winders rejecting this study because they think white kids using alcohol is okay, but black kids using crack is not. (I’m not saying that is the case – just anticipating the argument.)

  10. Dennis N says

    It’s not like drugs aren’t already available. I could probably have any drug I wanted by the end of the day, as could most everyone here. You’ll notice that most of us won’t do it. And it’s not because I fear the police, I just have no desire to do drugs.

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