By: Melissa Shaw

Debates over the demonization of young black people in America are nothing new. The perception that drug and alcohol addiction is rampant among young black Americans therefore comes as little surprise. After all, ten times more African Americans than white people are arrested for drug-related offenses. A study indicates that black youth are less likely to abuse drugs or become addicted to them in comparison with white people, Hispanics, Native Americans and mixed race people, however.

The investigation, which featured in the Archives of General Psychiatry, was based on interviews with nearly 73,000 young people for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Thirty seven percent of those surveyed aged between 12 and 17 had consumed alcohol or other forms of drugs on at least one occasion over the course of the year. Almost 8% of youth used drugs to a point classifiable as “substance abuse” or “substance dependence”, with the latter being synonymous with addiction. For black youth, the proportion of of those surveyed with substance abuse disorders was 5%. This was compared with 9% of white youth, 15% of Native American young people, 7.7% of Hispanic youth and 9.2% of young people of mixed race.

Black youth less likely to do drugs

Furthermore, around a fifth of white people have at least experimented with cocaine, according to the most recent figures from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The rate is half as much among African Americans. The proportion of blacks who have used marijuana, hallucinogens and stimulants is also notably lower. Use of opiates including heroin, which as Drugabuse.com explains, can lead to heart problems and infections, is also lower. Back in 1998, one study by the National Institutes of Health argued that heroin abuse had been virtually eradicated among African Americans living in New York City.  The only drug which is more commonly used among the African American population is crack and even then the proportional difference is just 2.4%. Some researchers have tried to account for this lower rate of substance abuse among African Americans to the family culture and behaviors of African American households.

Despite this, African Americans are three times more likely to be incarcerated for drugs possession according to NGO Human Rights Watch. Forty five percent of the more than 225,000 inmates charged with drug-related offenses are black. Some experts have suggested that this discrepancy is attributable to an alleged tendency of the police to carry out drugs searches in poor neighborhoods with ethnic minorities. These findings have prompted a push to end the disproportionate crackdown on young black youth for possession of drugs, in the form of a new legal proposal for the state of California, SB 649. The changes, which the state legislature passed in August, would allow prosecutors to charge drug offenders with misdemeanors rather than felonies, with convicts going to drug rehab centers rather than prison.

Young African Americans still at risk

Nonetheless, addiction is still a problem for black youth. This is because there is evidence to suggest that drug abuse may actually be worse among black adults compared with white adults in America. People tend to start experimenting with drugs before 25 years-old, inviting questions about the need for better intervention measures to prevent young black people from getting into drugs and then letting their habit spiral into adulthood. In particular there may be a call for greater action to address a recent rise in the use of marijuana and prescription drugs by young African Americans; consumption of marijuana grew from 5.9% in 2008 to 7.5% in 2010. The use of prescription drugs from 2.1% in 2008 to 3.5% in 2009.

Perhaps, then, there is a need to kickstart awareness raising programs specifically tailored to drug use trends among black youth. These should focus on warning young African Americans of the dangers of experimenting with the specific drugs which seem most popular among the community, namely marijuana, crack and prescription drugs. Campaigns also need to take into consideration the fact that African Americans’ addictions are growing into adulthood. The message to young black Americans everywhere needs to be: if you want to have the future that you’ve always dreamed of then don’t do drugs.