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Black Lives Matter, Substance Use, and Addiction Recovery in the United States

Marcel Gemme By Marcel Gemme | Last Updated: 31 May 2024

What is Black Lives Matter?

Black Lives Matter, or BLM, is a social movement advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against all racially motivated acts of violence against black people, including police brutality. BLM was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Travon Martin’s murderer.

  • What You'll Learn

BLM can be considered a grassroots movement that is decentralized. This makes it powerful and intentionally difficult to suppress. One of their strategies is to force people to face issues by causing them to feel uncomfortable enough. This can be through imagery, dialogue, storytelling, protesting, and various methods that utilize different media.

Part of the problem is that people naturally don’t want to confront evil. We don’t want to see violence, pain, and abuse. These things are happening daily, and Black people are subjected to and forced to experience unjust acts that are simply outside of the scope of reality for many. They refuse to allow society to pretend that racism is not still a pressing issue today.

History of BLM

The murder of Travon Martin, which sparked controversy across the nation, was largely viewed as a result of systemic racism and was heavily protested. Trayvon was 17 when George Zimmerman gunned him down, a community watch member who claimed to find Martin “suspicious” while walking he walked home from the store. Zimmerman initially was not charged, but after a massive outcry, he was brought in under charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Response to his eventual acquittal led to the development of Black Lives Matter.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began being used and went viral. After the notorious 2014 deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the group gained national recognition. Similar protests ensued, resulting in unrest and demonstration against violence by police or towards blacks. The hashtag’s originators, three people, in particular, expanded their network to over 30 local chapters by 2016. The movement has gained momentum and developed into a global organization in the UK, the US, and Canada.

The murder of George Floyd brought national media attention to BLM again, who became very active in protests and demonstrations. It is estimated that up to 26 million people participated in the 2020 BLM protests, making it one of US History’s largest movements. Popularity has significantly increased, with the majority of Americans now expressing support for the BLM movement.

Why Black Lives Matter?

BLM has originated out of a need to change an often obscured issue. Systemic racism is not new, yet so many people are unaware of its origins and how this relates to addiction. To understand this, we must examine history. Nothing quite defines open racism like slavery. The Civil War was based upon issues similar to what we face today but with far less deniability. After slavery was abolished, however, racism was far from over.

The South still found a way to exploit and abuse black people and enacted many laws to get them back into slavery, just under a different name. A perfect example being the crime of vagrancy, which was loosely translated to mean being unemployed. Of course, the only ones arrested for vagrancy were black people.

The charge came with a hefty fine, which anyone unemployed would be unable to pay. Then, arrests were made.

Being a black convict in the post-Civil War era qualified one for the convict-lease system. This is where they were leased to private companies to “work-off” their sentence. Approximately 200,000 black Americans were re-enslaved by companies looking to exploit resources and turn a fast profit. This meant arduous labor in anything from coal mines to lumber camps.

The conditions were wretched, and many died of disease or abuse.

Every southern state did this, and 90% of convicts in this system were black.

Part of the legislation that allowed this abuse to occur in the first place was something known as the Jim Crow laws. This was a name given to a set of statues that legalized racial segregation and existed for nearly 100 years after the Civil War ended.

Some of the earliest forms of such laws were known as “Black Codes.” These were strict local and state laws that controlled everything from the type of work and pay that blacks could receive, restricted their voting, and sought to control where and how black people lived. The Black Codes allowed black people to be arrested and placed in work camps.

Eventually, Jim Crow laws spread across the nation and led to the complete segregation.

The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs is a term used to describe legislative efforts taken by the Federal government to reduce sales, manufacturing, and consumption of illegal narcotics. It began during the Nixon Administration and has largely been viewed to be both unsuccessful and racially motivated. Nixon’s War on Drugs has its roots in his campaign race. In the 1960s, crime rates had spiked dramatically in major cities, and with Jim Crow laws winding down, “Tough on Crime” became the new approach to win votes.

Many believe that this was a coded effort to perpetuate the government’s racist backbone, which was beginning to fall out of public favor. And the proof can be found throughout history. The War on drugs led to mandatory minimum sentencing and stop-and-frisk searches that have been enforced disproportionately upon minorities much in the way that the Jim Crow laws have since slavery was “abolished.”

A noticeable sign of Nixon’s anti-black attitude was his disdain for marijuana, a “black drug” he considered was responsible for society’s decay. To this day, THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is still highly illegal federally. As a Schedule 1 narcotic, it has remained in the same classification as heroin since 1970 when the Controlled Substances Act was formed. But these laws have not changed, despite many states decriminalizing or legalizing the recreational and medical uses of the drug. The Nixon administration also ignored advice from the foremost health official to schedule the drug lower, if at all.

In 1995, it was discovered that blacks are arrested at a rate of 40% for drug violations, but only comprised 13% of admitted drug users.

More recent research has shown that the problem persists. Studies show that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue mandatory minimum sentencing for blacks and Latinos than for white people charged with the same offense.

Drug arrests and incarcerations have profound and lasting negative impacts on the individual and those around them. They exacerbate existing health conditions, both physical and mental. And jail does not rehabilitate the individual. Upon release, they are faced with extremely challenging circumstances and frequently relapse. The person is now carrying a record with them forever, which only makes things more challenging.

In the 1980s, there was an epidemic centered around cocaine, which was similar to what we see today with opioids. But the difference in how the two are being addressed is shocking. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that addiction was less understood. But even at the time, crack arrests were both made and targeted with higher frequency.

Crack and powder cocaine are two different preparations of the same drug. But, it just so happens that crack was more abundant in areas that were heavily populated by minorities. This occurrence is a symptom of racial disparity. Crack is often less expensive by weight and became used most among black people.

So, inner-city areas and black communities were targeted for drug stings. Harsher penalties were assigned to crack cocaine than powder cocaine, another legislative act that reeks of racism.

The War on Drugs has been described as the new Jim Crow, yet, this hasn’t stopped politicians from pushing to refuel the War even today.

The imagery and subtext of drugs being a mainly “black” problem are similarly evident throughout history. We’re inundated with the idea that black people, primarily youth, are at the highest risk of drug addiction, drug dealing, and related criminal activity. When we examine the statistics, instead, we find that whites have a higher rate of substance use disorder per capita than any other ethnic group, including blacks.

Yet, once again, black people are about 6.5 times more likely to be arrested for a drug-related crime.

Substance Use Treatment and Minorities

When it comes to treatment for addiction, black people are again at a disadvantage. Blacks are up to 8% less likely to complete substance use treatment than whites, and this is primarily due to socioeconomic factors.

Lack of employment, housing, insurance, and many other factors prove to be the reasons why it is more difficult for a black person to complete a residential treatment stay, the prevailing industry model. And where programs are funded to provide these services for free or low cost, the waiting lists are long, and the service’s standard of service is low. While some states, like California, are starting to provide quality addiction services for marginalized groups, the country as a whole does not have nearly enough access given the demand for service.

Black Mental Health Post Pandemic

The pandemic has been physically, emotionally, and economically difficult for everyone. However, it has hit some groups harder than others. Data has shown that non-Hispanic Black adults had higher rates of economic and mental health hardship.

According to a recent study, Black Americans fall ill and die more than whites from COVID. More survivors and loved ones face psychological risk. In addition, Black Americans experience more significant personal, social, and financial stress even when not personally touched by COVID.

The United States Census Bureau found that Black adults in households where someone had lost employment income since the start of the pandemic were more likely than White adults to report uncertainty about paying household bills. Unfortunately, black unemployment rates were higher than White unemployment rates even before the pandemic.

Over the past two years, the mental health treatment system has been challenged significantly. Yet, Black Americans have failed to receive mental health treatment in numbers corresponding with current rates of mental illness.

The Solution

While we don’t claim to have a magic bullet to this extremely deep-rooted and complex issue, we have a unique perspective and ability to impact change. The first step is education. Simply knowing these facts and acknowledging that this is occurring and has been for many years is a significant starting point.

Historical fallacies and omissions rob us of the ability to learn and teach future generations. Only with the truth can we know what to solve.

The next step is to increase the accessibility of treatment services for black people, so they have the same opportunity to become rehabilitated. This means continuing to draw awareness on the issue of addiction as it affects all humans on a national and global scale, so these services continue to be prioritized and funded. We’re pursuing this through education and sharing accurate, relevant information.

Anyone of any race, religion, or ethnicity may pursue treatment services through any Drug Rehab Services website and will be given equal opportunity and assistance with finding help. This includes assistance with selecting appropriate services with the flexibility to navigate barriers that may otherwise make treatment seem impossible.

As a society, we can continue to shed light on injustices and not allow them to be hidden or ignored. We can avoid perpetuating stigma and racial stereotypes that degrade minorities and people who struggle with substance use. We are all human.

Additional Facts and Statistics

  • In 2007 a black man between the ages of 18 and 25 without a high school diploma was more than three times more likely to be incarcerated than a non-Hispanic white man of the same age and education level.
  • Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.
  • Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for black people as white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino, and 31% were black.
  • Black people and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. They are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a significant role in police-community interactions. People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal justice system. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.
  • In the US, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people, with nearly half sentenced for drug-related crimes.
  • African Americans constituted 53.5 percent of all persons who entered prison because of a drug conviction.
  • Blacks were 10.1 times more likely than whites to enter prison for drug offenses.
  • A black man was 11.8 times more likely than a white man to enter prison for drug offenses.
  • A black woman was 4.8 times more likely than a white woman to enter prison for drug offenses.
  • Among all African Americans entering prison, almost two out of five (38.2 percent) were convicted of drug offenses, compared to one in four whites (25.4 percent).
  • Although still dramatic, the racial disparity in the ratio of black to white prison admission rates for drug offenses in 2003 was in most states less than in 1996. Nevertheless, because of the increase in the disparity in states with large populations such as New York and California, the racial disparity across the 34 states was higher in 2003 than in 1996. In 2003, the black prison admission rate for drug offenses was 10. 1 times that of whites. In 1996, it was 9.9 times greater.
  • For a comprehensive list of Black Lives Matter resources, visit the following guide: LBCC LibGuides

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Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with addiction for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States and Canada, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate and help many more people in both those countries. This was 15 years ago. Since then, Marcel has built two of the largest websites in the U.S. and Canada which reach and help millions of people each year. He is an author and a leader in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. His main focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation. To this day, he still strives to be at the forefront of technology in order to help more and more people. He is a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist graduate with Honours of Stratford Career Institute. Marcel has also received a certificate from Harvard for completing a course entitled The Opioid Crisis in America and a certificate from The University of Adelaide for completing a course entitled AddictionX: Managing Addiction: A Framework for Succesful Treatment.