Why Do People Keep Claiming All Races Use Drugs at the Same Rate?

by Roger Clegg

I’m just a poor but honest lawyer, not a statistician or social scientist, so maybe I’m wrong. But I keep hearing that, even though blacks don’t use drugs more frequently than whites and others, the war on drugs is locking them up at a wildly disproportionate rate. Now, of course one answer is that, even if use rates are the same, it doesn’t follow that the incarceration rates should be the same. People are typically locked up not for using but for dealing. And some kinds of dealing — for example, in open-air markets — are more likely to result in arrests than others. (And I have to note that most criminals are not drug criminals anyway.)

But my point today is just about the drug-use-rate claim. Take a look at table 1.19B here, which appears to be the most recent data from the federal agency that you’d expect to have the best data, namely the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The most relevant column is the one on the far right, since it is for the most recent year (2012) and the most recent use (past month) — click to expand the chart.

As you would expect, the age group that uses “illicit drugs” the most is 18–25, and males use drugs much more than females. But look at the racial groups: Not much uniformity there either. That darn model minority, the Asians, are there again busting the curve for everyone else, with only 3.7 percent using, versus 9.2 percent for all groups, which is also the white total. But blacks are at 11.3 percent, meaning that they use drugs at a rate 23 percent higher than the general population and whites.

Lately marijuana drug-law enforcement has been singled out for particular criticism in this regard, but now look at table 1.24B. Same thing: The 18–25 year-olds are by far the worst, and males smoke much more pot than females. And the racial breakdown is the same, too, so that, for example, blacks use marijuana at a rate that is again 23 percent higher than whites.

My point here is not to defend the war on drugs, but just to note one way (there are others) that the case has not been convincingly made that the war has been motivated and implemented with an eye on race.