February is National African American History Month, also called Black History Month. It’s a time to reflect on the amazing achievements of African Americans and to look forward as we strive toward racial equality in all areas of public and private life. This involves considering difficult issues, including substance use.
As with all people groups, African Americans can experience substance use disorders and can receive treatment to help overcome addiction. However, there are some cultural factors we should understand that lead to differences in substance use disorder between racial groups. Finally, we should celebrate the dedicated professionals who are making great strides in furthering research and recovery services for African Americans experiencing substance use disorders (SUDs).
African American Substance Use Statistics
African Americans generally experience lower rates of binge drinking than other ethnic groups in the U.S. and are less likely to develop an alcohol dependency in their lifetime. However, for African Americans who do experience an alcohol addiction, recurrent or persistent dependence can be more prevalent than for other racial groups.
African American drug use statistics reveal more differences between racial groups when it comes to substance use. While overall rates of substance use and illicit drug use are similar across ethnic lines, statistics do reveal some marked differences between white people’s vs. Black people’s drug use and some trends we should be aware of. Some of these differences include:
- Most commonly used drugs: One difference we can see between racial groups is which drugs tend to be circulated and used the most. Marijuana is the most commonly used substance among African Americans, and this rate of marijuana usage is higher than the rate for the general population. The second most common class of drugs is psychotherapeutic drugs, followed by cocaine and hallucinogens. Crack cocaine is known for affecting Black communities disproportionately.
- Drug overdose deaths: A distinction to note among the Black population is a rising rate of drug overdose deaths. Between 2015 and 2016, the rate of overdose deaths grew by 21% across the overall population, but it increased by 40% among African Americans. This growth rate exceeded all other racial groups. From 2014-2017, death rates from synthetic opioid use increased by 818% among African Americans, which was a higher increase than for any other racial group.
African American Culture and Substance Use
Despite the way substance use disorders affect all racial groups, the risk factors that contribute to SUDs can differ depending on racial identity. African Americans are more likely to experience circumstances like poverty, incarceration and homelessness, which are all risk factors for mental health issues and substance use disorders.
The ripple effect of SUDs can also look different across cultures and communities. Looking historically at African American culture and substance use, we see that the crack epidemic in the early 1980s had a lasting effect on African American communities — particularly those in inner cities where crack addictions, deaths and crimes were most prevalent. This epidemic also ushered in the “War on Drugs,” which focused heavily on drugs in the Black community.
As the government attempted to solve the drug problem, law enforcement arrested a large number of small-time drug dealers, who tended to be impoverished young black males, and their customers. As a result of these arrests, the prison population grew substantially and by 1995, nearly 1 in 3 African American males in their 20’s was incarcerated, on probation or on parole.
Today, though overall rates of substance use disorder look similar across racial populations, African Americans are arrested for drug-related offenses at disproportionate rates. In 2000, the rate of imprisonment for drug-related crimes was 15 times higher for Black people than for white people. By 2016, that disparity had shrunk dramatically but still persisted. The imprisonment rates were still five times higher for Black people than white people.
This history of being overrepresented in experiencing criminal consequences for drugs has likely led to different cultural sensitivities and fears surrounding SUDs. Black communities may be more predisposed to mistrust government-led programs aimed at addressing substance use and may be more reticent to reach out for treatment because of social stigma or fears.
The barriers to seeking and receiving quality treatment for an SUD can differ between racial groups. For many Black Americans, issues of poverty, a lack of health insurance, limited access to transportation, untreated mental health disorders and other problems can make it more difficult to receive the help needed to recover from an addiction.
Leaders in African American Substance Use Research and Recovery
Throughout history, African Americans have played a role in furthering research on substance use and helping communities of all races and backgrounds combat issues of addiction. Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist whose February birthday helped determine the timing of Black History Month, was a member of the 19th-century temperance movement, which emphasized sobriety. Douglass believed alcohol produced its own form of enslavement.
Over the centuries, many African Americans have furthered causes related to addiction recovery and sobriety. Among researchers and health care and counseling professionals, President Barack Obama enacted a drug policy to address many of the substance use consequences and barriers to addiction treatment that impact the African American community. Examples of this policy’s goals included:
- Emphasizing the prevention of drug use over incarceration
- Expanding access to addiction treatment
- Measures to help break the cycle of drug use, crime, arrest and incarceration
Further, the National Institute of Health recognizes that addiction and other health issues do not affect all communities in the same way, which is why the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) was formed. The NIMHD conducts scientific research that is focused on improving minority health and minimizing health disparities.
Make This Month the Start of Your Recovery Journey
If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance use disorder, there’s no need to struggle in silence. At Gateway Foundation, we provide recovery services that empower clients to safely transition to a healthier lifestyle. For more than half a century, Gateway Foundation has been providing evidence-based care to clients of all walks of life in the Illinois area.
By offering outpatient treatment in addition to residential programs, we can help you find the help you need that will fit into your schedule. We understand that recovery is a long road. That’s why we provide the ongoing support you need to stay the course long-term. If you’re ready to begin your journey to recovery, get in touch with Gateway Foundation online or by calling 877-381-6538.