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How Addiction Is Perpetuated by Racism

Marcel Gemme By Marcel Gemme | Last Updated: 20 May 2024

The Reality of the Problem

  • Approximately 90% of African Americans who need treatment for substance use disorder do not receive the help they need.
  • 5% of illicit drug users in the United States are African American. Yet, they account for 29% of arrests.
  • 33% of Black Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses.
  • Blacks and Latinos have limited access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services for substance use.
  • This lack of support makes it difficult to break the cycle of addiction and helps perpetuate systemic racism.
  • What You'll Learn

    Systemic racism is finally getting the attention needed to create change. Still, it is crucial that our nation fully understands the depths of this problem.

    Police brutality against the black community is a blatant injustice, but countless issues go mostly unseen. To create sustainable change regarding racial inequality, our country must expose these hidden acts of systemic racism.

    A prime example is how the United States deals with substance abuse within the black community. Here are three reasons showing how addiction is perpetuated by racism.

    Lack of Support to Recover Successfully

    According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, AHRQ, there is a definite disparity in healthcare between whites and other demographics.

    In a 2018 report, AHRQ highlighted the following

    • Blacks, American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs), and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (NHPIs) received worse care than Whites for about 40% of quality measures. Disparities were improving for only 4 measures for Blacks, 2 measures for AI/ANs, and 1 measure for NHPIs.
    • Hispanics received worse care than Whites for about 35% of quality measures. From 2000 to 2017, disparities were improving for 5 measures for Hispanics.
    • Asians received worse care than Whites for 27% of quality measures but better care than Whites for 28% of quality measures. Disparities were improving for only 2 measures for Asians.

    Many African Americans and minorities suffering from addiction do not get the proper support to recover successfully. It is more common for members of these communities to be punished for something that is widely considered a mental disorder. On top of this those that do receive treatment may not finish.

    According to a research article in Health Affairs:

    • Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to complete addiction treatment.
    • Two million people entering publicly funded substance use treatment do not complete their program.
    • Racial and ethnic minorities constitute 40% of admissions.
    • Blacks and Hispanics were 3.5–8.1 percentage points less likely than whites to complete treatment for alcohol and drugs.
    • Native Americans were 4.7 percentage points less likely to complete alcohol treatment.

    Unfortunately, outdated policies and initiatives like the “War on Drugs” have done more to perpetuate addiction among individuals of color and have historically imprisoned this demographic instead of empowering them.

    Not Learning from the Past

    During the 1980s, America experienced one of its first drug epidemics when cocaine was flooding into the country. As issues with this substance became more prevalent, there was a push to curb its use and distribution.

    To accomplish this, there was more attention on arresting individuals than providing services to help people overcome their addiction. These arrests dealt out more substantial penalties to crack cocaine than powder cocaine.

    While both substances are nearly identical chemically, the most significant difference was that crack was more prevalent among minorities due to its accessibility and affordability in metropolitan areas. This led to a disproportionate number of blacks being arrested and sentenced to jail.

    At the same time, whites were let off with far softer penalties for the same transgression.

    The consequences are still felt today among families who have been torn apart by “addiction” when they were torn apart by unfair penalties inflicted upon those who’ve needed help the most.

    The incarceration STATS below paint a harsh reality:

    • Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans.
    • Nationally, one in 81 Black adults in the U.S. is serving time in state prison./li>
    • In 12 states, more than half the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
    • Seven states maintain a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
    • Latino individuals are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration rate of whites.
    • Ethnic disparities are highest in Massachusetts, which reports an ethnic differential of 4.1:1.

    A Double Standard

    This may not seem racial until you examine the opioid epidemic and how it was handled. Prescription drug abuse was rampant, especially among the white community, and in 2010 efforts to prevent the over-prescribing of pain medication led to restrictions.

    As prescription opioids became harder to acquire, many individuals who were dependent on this substance turned to heroin.

    As the opioid epidemic surged, the nation’s response to this was very different than the response to drug problems in minority demographics. Whites were viewed more as victims and given more opportunities to receive treatment instead of punitive consequences.

    Instead of holding them accountable, the blame was diverted to doctors and pharmaceutical companies. While these entities couldn’t be blamed for the crack cocaine epidemic, it is interesting that efforts to stop a predominantly white drug problem were aimed at the source rather than the individual.

    Studies have shown that:

    • Patients receiving buprenorphine from one large urban clinic found that minority patients were much less likely than whites to be retained in treatment for at least 1 year.
    • Non-Hispanic black and Hispanic youth were less likely to receive treatment with buprenorphine or naltrexone than were non-Hispanic white youth.
    • Even though whites and men continue to bear the heaviest brunt of opioid addiction, overdose deaths are rising at higher rates among certain minorities such as American Indians and African Americans.

    This is a stark contrast to how drug problems with individuals of color were handled and still are to a certain extent.

    In Conclusion

    With a disproportionate number of colored individuals being arrested for drug-related crimes and a massive gap in treatment, it appears that minorities with addiction are more likely to be incarcerated. Indeed, advancements in medicine and technology have helped aid the improvements in care we’ve witnessed since the 1980s. But to emphasize this factor is to take away from the undeniable influence that racism has had in shaping today’s landscape of unrest. There is no longer an excuse to be unaware.

    It is time to end this cycle and fundamentally change how we treat addiction and systemic racism victims.




    More Information

    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.