Race and Recovery

Skin color plays no role in the way in which drugs are absorbed. Intoxicating substances deliver their effects in much the same way, regardless of a person’s race or ethnicity. But the rates of drug use do vary from one race to another, as do the rates of recovery from addiction. Experts aren’t quite sure how to resolve these problems at the moment, but the consensus is that these differences are very real and very important.

Use of Drugs By Race

In 2011, researchers writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry looked closely at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [1]. In this survey, experts ask students between the ages 12 and 17 to reveal the types of drugs they’ve taken, along with their opinions about drug use as a whole. Some are even diagnosed with addictions in this survey. The researchers took this data and controlled for variables involving poverty. In theory, this would provide a clearer snapshot of drug use in America, as people who are poor tend to use drugs at an advanced rate when compared to people who are wealthy. Even so, people of color tended to have a higher rate of drug addiction in this published study, even when economics weren’t a factor.

Addiction Rates by Race

Native American: 15%

Mixed Race: 9.2%

White: 9%

Hispanic: 7.7%

African: 5%

Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.5%

Clearly, people in the Native American group seem to be at the greatest risk of developing an addiction, but it’s also clear that they aren’t the only ones who dabble in drugs. Many people who identify as white also use drugs. In fact, they do so at rates that are much higher than those seen in black communities.

Entry into Treatment

Experimenting with drugs during adolescence is considered remarkably dangerous, as the brain is still developing and growing, and it is vulnerable to addiction-type damage during this transitional process. As a result, many young people who use drugs simply do get addicted.

When these young people develop addictions and burst into adulthood with those drug habits firmly in place, they might choose to enroll in treatment programs in order to get better. But race also seems to play a role in the decision to enroll. For example, in 2008, admissions to publically funded treatment programs for substance abuse broke down by race/ethnicity in this fashion [2]:

Treatment Population

White: 59.8%

African-American: 20.9%

Hispanic: 13.7%

American Indian: 2.3%

Mixed/Other: 2.3%

Asian/Pacific Islander: 1%

A Comparison

If the two sets of statistics are compared, they seem to suggest that people of color often use drugs, but they rarely enter treatment programs. If they aren’t going into treatment, where are they going?

The Role of IncarcerationMany intoxicating drugs are illegal in the United States. This means that making the drugs, buying them, or using them could result in stiff sentences that lead to jail time. Statistics suggest that people of color tend to be arrested at rates that exceed those seen in people who are white. For example, a 2009 report from Human Rights Watch suggests that African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a rate three times larger than the rate seen in whites [3].

When these people are arrested, they might face stiffer sentences for their crimes. For example, laws written in the 1980s provided two different lengths of sentences for cocaine, depending on the form in which it was sold or used. Sentences involving crack were 100 times harsher than sentences for powdered cocaine, and since African American users were more likely to buy crack due to its inexpensive nature, they were disproportionally sentenced to longer prison terms. Those laws were revised in 2010, but a disparity still exists, as crack offenses are still 18 times more stringent than powdered offenses [4]. This means black users often have longer prison sentences than white users.

The Impact of a Conviction

When people are arrested for drugs, they’re technically entitled to treatment for their addiction. Denying them that treatment might constitute a form of cruel and unusual punishment, as the withdrawal process associated with some drugs can be physically painful. But even so, research suggests that prison drug rehabilitation services are scarce.

In one study of the issue, published in 2011 by the Government Accountability Office, more than 51,000 inmates in federal prison were on a waiting list for a basic drug-education program [5]. Some had been waiting for up to three months. If a majority of people serving time in prison for drug crimes are people of color, and there are few treatment programs available in the prison system, this might mean that many drug users of color don’t get the help they need to combat an addiction.

More disturbingly, those who do get help in the prison system might face such a high degree of discrimination when they emerge that they’re driven back into drug use. That’s the conclusion of a study published in 2009, in which the researchers wrote [6]:

“Incarceration stigma is expressed through a punishment rather than rehabilitation approach to drug use, a view of drug users as ‘criminals,’ zero tolerance for any use (or relapse), and a disdain for therapeutic interventions or compassion for those with drug addictions. The resultant criminalization of drug use means that relapse to drug use is the primary reason for a revocation of parole and return to prison for women.”

This is an extremely harsh statement, and it seems to suggest that recovery is viewed with disdain and/or incredulity by many communities. It’s hard to see how anyone might succeed in recovery when this is the kind of thinking they face upon their return home.

Trying to Heal at Home

Even those who manage to escape the notice of the police force and who don’t land in jail due to addiction might be forced to deal with stigma due to drug use. For example, in a 2011 study of African American drug users, most reported that they were forced to deal with a dual level of discrimination [7]. Some of those problems came about due to their race, but some came about due to their drug habits. On multiple levels, these people struggled.

A similar finding was seen in people who live in Hispanic communities, as a 1996 study suggests that people in this group may also feel as though they’re judged for their behaviors [8]. More distressingly, members of this group also reported that they’d be likely to delay their entry into drug abuse programs due to concerns about the stigma that might result when they admit to their addiction.

Stigma due to addiction isn’t unique to people of color. People of all ethnicities who participated in a study regarding methadone maintenance, for example, agreed with the idea that their participation in the recovery movement constituted a form of a double life [9]. They were forced to hide their habits, and their work, in order to gain acceptance from the community as a whole. This kind of thing might happen to anyone who has an addiction and tries to recover from it.

However, it’s hard to overstate the impact of this kind of bias in minority communities. In order to succeed, people in these communities might already feel as though they must work in order to pass. They might change the way in which they:

  • Walk
  • Dress
  • Talk
  • Refer to themselves

And adding in an addiction might be yet one more layer that’s too difficult to manage. People like this might allow the addiction to continue because they just don’t have the energy to keep working on the problem and keep up appearances.

The solution seems to involve education. If more people knew how recovery really works, and that treatment really does work, perhaps more people would agree to enter the treatment programs that could help them, regardless of their race or their ethnicity. And if more of society understood how addiction is a medical disease, that could help remove the stigma of drug use. Please call now to talk with one of our admissions coordinators about how our treatment programs can help.


[1]Szalavitz, M. (Nov. 7, 2011). “Study: Whites More Likely to Abuse Drugs Than Blacks.” Time. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[2]“Drug Facts: Treatment Statistics.” (March 2011). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[3]Knafo, S. (Sept. 17, 2013). “When it Comes to Illegal Drug Use, White America Does the Crime, Black America Gets the Time.” Huffington Post. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[4]“Race and the Drug War.” (n.d.). The Drug Policy Alliance. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[5]Johnson, K. (Dec. 4, 2012). “Prisoners Face Long Wait for Drug-Rehab Services.” USA Today. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[6]Van Olphen, J.; Eliason, M.; Freudenberg, N. & Barnes, M. (May 8, 2009). “Nowhere to Go: How Stigma Limits the Options of Female Drug Users After Release From Jail.” Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[7]Scott, M. & Wahl, O. (2011). “Substance Abuse Stigma and Discrimination Among African American Male Substance Users.” Stigma Research and Action. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[8]Kline, A. (1996). “Pathways into Drug User Treatment: The Influence of Gender and Racial/Ethnic Identity.” Substance Use & Misuse. Accessed April 25, 2014.

[9]Murphy, S. & Irwin, J. (Jan. 20, 2012). “‘Living with the Dirty Secret’: Problems of Disclosure for Methadone Maintenance Clients.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Accessed April 25, 2014.

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