White People Do More Drugs, Black People Serve More Time

The story of American drug use is whiter than you'd think, and we're not just talking powder

Drugs are bad, kids. — (AFP/Getty Images)
Feb 29, 2016 at 2:42 PM ET

White people do more drugs; people of color do more time in jail for drugs—and that’s just one of the nasty discrepancies highlighted by a recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health. While people of color are far more commonly prosecuted and incarcerated for drug-related offenses in the U.S., the data reveals that white folk are more likely to have experimented with narcotics.

With one notable exception, more white Americans continue to experiment with serious drugs like cocaine or non-medical use prescription drugs during their lifetime than African Americans. Additionally, a higher percentage of white Americans reported having tried crack, hallucinogens, cocaine, marijuana, or prescription drugs than Latinos or Hispanics.

Crack cocaine, which has a long-standing history among black, impoverished communities since the 1980s, is the one exception for African Americans. More African Americans than whites will consume this one drug during their lifetime (5.3 percent compared to 4.1 percent). And while the lifetime rate of experimenting with these drugs was slightly higher among black populations, only 0.1 percent of respondents in either group stated that they used the drug within the past month.

According to the survey, the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (the data for 2015 isn’t yet available), marijuana was by far the drug most commonly tried among all racial groups in 2014 at an average of 47 percent, and white Americans try all drugs at a rate slightly higher than that of the overall population. White Americans also displayed comparatively high rates of experimentation with non-prescribed psychotherapeutic drugs (such as antidepressants and antipsychotics), the second most commonly sampled drug of all groups for all races besides American Indians and Alaska natives.

American Indians were more likely to have tried hallucinogenics, which may in part be cultural, as hallucinogenic plants like peyote have traditionally played a role within some American Indian groups for religious and cultural purposes. American Indians also experimented with all drugs besides marijuana at a higher-than-average rate, exceeding all other groups, and reported having used cocaine and psychotropics at least once in the past month more often than any other group. Limited socioeconomic opportunity has been a major factor in the American Indian community’s vulnerability to substance abuse that starts at a young age.

The group least likely to have tried any drugs included in the survey were Asians. These findings were consistent with past studies on largely infrequent drug usage among the demographic, though experts agree that more research on how assimilation is affecting the population is necessary.