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Systemic Racism, Substance Use and Latino Americans

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

Here at Drug Rehab Services, we acknowledge that systemic racism is an issue that has prevented minority groups like Latinos from receiving adequate care and equal access to substance abuse treatment services.

We disagree with these practices and are actively working to shed light on the existence of systemic racism and provide access to services that openly uplift and help people of all ethnicities and races.

Systemic racism is a problem that is only now beginning to get the attention it deserves.

  • What You'll Learn

The Root of Systemic Racism Meaning

The term began being used heavily by activists after the killing of George Floyd in hopes of exposing a longstanding pattern of racist behavior in America.

The term was once referred to as “institutional racism” and was first coined in 1967. But despite knowledge of the problem for decades, it has remained in the dark. Part of the problem with systemic racism is that it’s so embedded that it prevents its discovery.

The term “systemic racism” is used to describe the patterns of prejudice, bias, and often open hatred that exist at the core of America and disadvantaged minorities.

It permeates all levels of society, including our government and legislative systems. Systemic racism is so broad and ingrained that many people are unaware of its existence or the fact that they participate in and support racist agendas.

Wikipedia defines systemic racism

  • A form of racism that is embedded as a normal practice within society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.”

History of Anti-Latino Discrimination

The history of anti-Latino discrimination often gets obscured by white texts and overshadowed by the plight of blacks in America.

But this doesn’t mean that it is any less horrific or worthy of being properly understood and documented. Latinos have suffered racism for well over a century in America and are still subjected to it in many forms.

The Mexican-American War

Since the US won the Mexican-American War in 1848, Latino-American discrimination has had roots in America.

At that time, the US gained 55% of Mexican territory through the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which denoted the end of the war. New land brought new Mexican people to the US, and those who decided to stay on American territory were granted citizenship.

The political uproar began in what was left of Mexico in the next few decades, making emigration to the US a popular decision for many Mexican residents. American employers looking for cheap labor at the time were happy to employ these new transplants.

Cheap Mexican Labor

This began a trend of discrimination against Latinos in America as many US workers and residents conceived negative stereotypes that are still perpetuated today. Latinos were barred entry to many ports, particularly in poor areas where people were afraid of losing work.

Companies that openly employed Mexican laborers to reduce costs perpetuated the problem by skirting labor laws and sending recruiters to Mexico. Despite Latinos being American citizens and vital to the US economy, those that resided in America were often the targets of hate and discrimination.

Spanish-speaking people were often attacked, and mob violence toward Latinos became common. This lasted into the early 1900s before the Mexican government began pressuring the US to start policing and ending such violence.

The Great Depression

As the Great Depression began, the theme of accusing migrant workers of stealing American jobs intensified. As these fears spread, the US eventually forcibly deported approximately 2 million people of Mexican descent. Around 60% of these were American citizens. This removal was referred to as “repatriation.”

Much like the blacks suffered from segregation and Jim Crowe laws, Latinos have experienced a similar history. Although these rules weren’t explicitly written, Latinos were undoubtedly subjected to their version.

They were expected to attend schools, which were often dilapidated and lacked the necessary facilities or supplies to provide an adequate education. Some didn’t even have enough teachers to serve the students.

These schools sometimes didn’t offer standard grades for 12 years, and instead, high school classes provided vocational training. Children were forced to attend these schools based on discriminatory factors like their complexion or their last name.

Latinos in America Today

An estimated 54 million Latinos live in the US today, comprising the largest minority population in America. And while many of these occurrences may seem far from the past, anti-Latino discrimination is still an unfortunate part of the American landscape.

Recent political unrest has highlighted the need to shed light on the issue and show that it still exists. In 2016, 52 percent of Latinos surveyed said they had experienced discrimination. Many of the stereotypes and accusations that permeated throughout history still exist today, and acts of hate and violence still occur, particularly along the border that separates Mexico and America.

These open acts of hate and prejudice garner the most attention because of their shocking and brutal nature. But many people don’t see the systemic issues that handicap minorities, perhaps more than these disturbing incidents.

Remember, systemic racism is sometimes subtle and hard to detect. This is where laws and policies can be used to suppress a people and keep them out of positions of success and power where they could affect change.


The “War on Drugs” is a term for the actions and legislation taken by the US Federal government to end the illegal distribution and use of illicit drugs. The war on drugs began in the Nixon era. It was intended to reduce the growing drug problem in America at the time, particularly as it pertained to the importation of cocaine across southern borders.

Historically, Mexico served as a major entry point for drug trafficking into the US. Columbian drug cartels and many Mexican cartels utilized established trafficking routes from Mexico into America’s border states and beyond. This pitted Mexico against US federal forces and began a war that continues today.

The Tough on Crime Era

Under Nixon, the “tough on crime” era began, and much of today’s legislation surrounding illicit substances was created. The Controlled Substances Act was developed, a system that classifies all illegal and prescription drugs and establishes federal penalties for possessing, manufacturing, and trafficking them.

There have long been ties between racist discrimination and Nixon’s drug agendas, and evidence of this can be found today. There are disproportionately greater rates of imprisonment for drug crimes among minorities like Latinos and blacks, despite having similar rates of substance use to whites.

Much of this began with the scheduling of marijuana. Though it may seem unrelated, marijuana is a drug that has its roots in a history of racism and draconian law enforcement.

The drug was often viewed as being tied to minority populations like blacks and Latinos, both in its consumption and manufacturing. Most of America’s marijuana at the time came from Mexico, and it was reported to Nixon himself viewed it as a “black drug.”

Thus, marijuana found its place as a schedule I controlled substance, the most highly regulated classification given to a drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Federally, it is still a schedule I controlled substance today.

Federal Scheduling of Drugs

Federal scheduling works by establishing five classes, or “schedules,” that drugs can belong in.

According to the DEA website:

“Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote.”

As you can see, this makes marijuana as dangerous as heroin, with the same penalties for illegal drug convictions.

Schedules II through V contains the rest of the controlled substances that are viewed as being less addictive and having medical uses. This includes prescription drugs like Oxycontin and fentanyl.

Mass Rates of Incarceration

This made possession of one of the most common drugs of abuse a serious crime. And anyone caught growing or trafficking marijuana was looking at a life lost to the legal system.

Soon people of color were being arrested in droves and placed in America’s jails and prisons. Once in the system, the fines, penalties, and subsequent parole and probation restrictions handicap the person in such a way that even if they aren’t incarcerated, they can’t escape.

Everything becomes more difficult in life, including the person’s ability to find a job and pay the steep fines, let alone survive.

Incarceration rates for non-drug crimes have remained stable over many decades, while rates for drug-related crimes have soared:

  • With 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • A disturbing number of them are from the populations of America’s racial minorities.
  • Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost
  • 60% of people in state prison for drug-related offenses are Black or Latino.

To put this into perspective, the number of black men currently in prison is equal to the amount enslaved in 1820.

The Crack Cocaine Epidemic

Crack is another drug that highlights the racist motivations behind the war on drugs. In the 1980s, when cocaine consumption was at an all-time high among white Americans, crack was taking hold in minority communities.

Crack is the same drug as cocaine, but in a form where it can be smoked rather than snorted. Crack became popular in low-income areas where minority populations were high, such as inner cities, because of its relatively low cost.

Powder cocaine was viewed as a white drug because it was more expensive. Not surprisingly, penalties for crimes related to crack were much more severe than those for cocaine.

Trafficking penalties for both products were extremely high since it was done primarily by minority workers, but the penalty for possessing crack cocaine is about 18 times more than possessing powdered cocaine. The only difference is that crack cocaine contains baking soda and water and is mainly consumed by people of color.


Part of the strategy for the war on drugs has been to paint a picture that minorities are drug addicts.

Whether through outright lies, biased studies, statistics, or media imagery and stereotyping, Latinos have been portrayed as having higher rates of substance use and drug crimes than whites. Not only is this untrue, but it’s another example of how insidious systemic racism has become.

This, of course, serves to further their campaign and justify the inflated rates of minority imprisonment.

The Differences in Receiving Treatment

There seems to be no difference in the rates at which minorities and whites struggle with addiction. But there’s a major difference in how they get help for it.

Disparities in access to quality treatment play a role in every aspect of health care for Latinos, and the opioid crisis is no different.

While white males continue to experience the highest rates of opioid misuse and deaths from opioid overdose, studies show that minorities with opioid use disorders remain at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing appropriate treatment.

  • Latinos are only 75% as likely as Whites to complete a treatment when the primary drug of abuse is heroin.

Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group entering treatment today, but they still have many hurdles to overcome.

Discrimination Negatively Impacts Health Outcomes

Discrimination and racism have mental and emotional impacts that act as stressors in life. On top of this, the long-term effects of generations being marginalized and disadvantaged have led to many Latino families living in poverty.

It’s well-known that these factors can negatively impact health outcomes. It’s not hard to imagine why someone might turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope. This perpetuates the problem even more because when Latinos struggle with addiction, they have notably fewer opportunities for getting help than whites.

While there are laws that prevent discrimination within treatment facilities, there’s no way to monitor whether or not patients are being turned away simply because of their ethnicity.

Assuming that this isn’t happening, the biggest barrier that exists is access.

Limited to Access and Payment Options to Treatment Resources

There are fewer substance use treatment facilities in impoverished areas. Those that exist are usually of questionable quality and rarely have availability due to high demand.

When treatment is available, the next hurdle for many Latinos is paying for it. Rehabilitation can be very expensive.

The Obama administration made efforts to force insurance providers and Medicaid to cover substance use treatment and mental health services, but this hasn’t helped much. Only expensive private policies provide anything near adequate reimbursement rates for drug and alcohol treatment.

Medicaid Barriers

In the cases where Medicaid or other affordable policies cover anything, it’s usually only a few days of treatment. At that point, their hired medical professionals will review the charts from the rehab and tell them to discharge the patient, as they will no longer pay.

Since most programs require at least 28 days of treatment participation to complete successfully, this means patients are being discharged well before they’ve completed their treatment plan and had all their needs met.

The above scenario is an all-too-common recipe for relapse. And sadly, insurance companies are far less likely to pay for subsequent treatment episodes and will label their client as “treatment-resistant.”

Should a person feel their recovery is in jeopardy after one of these abbreviated treatment stays, they’ll find no help from their insurance company either. Unless they test positive for drugs, insurance providers never authorize payment for substance use treatment. They require the person to relapse before they’ll even consider it.

Language Barriers

Another major barrier, should one overcome all of the above, is language. Many treatment centers in America don’t have language services for Latino patients or aren’t adequately equipped to provide them with the same level of one-on-one care that English-speaking patients receive.

Systemic racism begins with minorities frequently coming from marginalized backgrounds and being born into poverty in America. They are discriminated against and disadvantaged, causing them stress and negatively impacting their health.

When they turn to drugs and alcohol and develop an addiction, they have few places to turn for help. If they can find somewhere of decent quality, they likely cannot afford it. And when they can, it’s usually not for long enough to provide the true benefit.


There isn’t a magical cure for systemic racism, but we must start somewhere.

The starting point right now is educating people that it exists. Because so many people are oblivious to the history of Latino discrimination in America, our goal is first to enlighten. It directly impacts the health and well-being of every Latino person, particularly those who struggle with substance use, which is an already stigmatized condition.

With knowledge comes the ability to do something about it and start to change our country.

By providing access to substance use treatment services and using tools like our search by language services, we hope to give Latinos the best possible opportunity to find treatment when they need it.

Anything that can be done to take away one of the many barriers that prevent Latinos from getting the best treatment possible can have a meaningful impact and potentially save a life. After all, we are all human.


  • Between 2007 and 2012, over 250,000 people were deported from the United States for drug law violations.
  • From 2007 to 2012, deportations for drug possession offenses increased by 43%.
  • In 2013, simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any offense. It was the most common cause of deportation for drug law violations. In 2012 and 2013, more than 13,000 people were deported for marijuana possession.
  • Almost 80% of people in federal prison and nearly 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.
  • In 2011, 38% of people who received mandatory minimum sentences were Latino, and 31% were Black.
  • Today, 2.7 million children in America have at least one parent who is incarcerated. These children are more likely to be imprisoned during their lifetime than other children.




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.