Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

Readers Quiz: Which race takes more drugs?

Nearly half of White Americans use drugs, but most outgrow it

The United States measures its drug and alcohol use more than any other society, now or ever, as represented by its annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Which race do you think is more likely to smoke marijuana? (Advanced quiz takers: at the end of this piece are eight factual observations about Americans, race, and drug use - pick three to explain.)

The answer turns out to be slightly complicated - it depends which type of use you mean - for example, which race has the highest percentage of people who have smoked marijuana in their lives? For which race has the highest percentage smoked mj in the last year? And which race has the most current smokers (past month)?

White Americans are almost (year 2007) - but not quite - most likely to have used marijuana ever: 45 percent have done so (this is for all Americans 12 years and older). But, actually, more Native Americans have ever used the drug - 47 percent. African Americans are far less likely to have used mj in their lives - "only" 38 percent - and Hispanic Americans are far behind: 27 percent ("forget" Asians - 16 percent have used mj).

However, if you switch your scope to mj use in the last year, African Americans are number one (12 percent) followed by Native Americans (11 percent), then Whites (10 percent). And leading in current (past month) use are Native Americans (8 percent), then African Americans (7 percent), then Whites (6 percent).

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What do we learn from these data? Here are the "first cut" deductions - you provide the "deep" answers.

1.Why the heck are Americans so preoccupied with their own drug use (me included), measuring it at every turn?

2.  An awful lot of Americans - close to half of Whites - have used an illicit substance. Do we really want to regard all of them, including our last three presidents, as criminals?

3. If you consider all the people who have ever used marijuana, then look at the percentage who did so in the last year, there is a large drop off - for whites, over three quarters "quit." (This is actually even truer for "hard" drugs - crack and heroin - which tells us that drug experimentation is overwhelmingly the rule, rather than progression to habitual use.) 

4.  Let's look at this another way: 16 percent of Americans 17-25 have used mj in the past month, while 4 percent of those 26 and older did.  The current generation of young Americans is more likely to use drugs.  That is, 51 percent in that age group have used marijuana already in their lives (that figure never decreases for a cohort, if you know what I mean).  "Only" 42 percent of older Americans have ever used the drug.

5. Although far more minorities, particularly African Americans, are arrested for drug offenses (particularly marijuana), African Americans are not more likely to have used drugs in their lives.

6. However, slightly (but significantly) more African Americans are current users - indicating that more White Americans outgrow drug use over their lifetimes (about a third of African Americans who have ever used marijuana did so in the last year).

7. Oh, by the way, mixed race Americans are actually number one in the recent marijuana use categories - 17 percent in the last year, 10 percent the last month. A mixed racial identity is a risk factor for current drug use.

8. And what is it with Asian Americans? Only 4 percent used marijuana in the past year.

Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.

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