Does Race, Gender or Ethnicity Determine Drug Use

multi ethnic group in the city

To a large degree, perceptions of drug use and addiction can be affected by racial stereotypes. These types of stereotypes have long been perpetuated, to the effect that people of certain races or ethnic backgrounds are more likely to use drugs than others. For example, a Texas legislator speaking in support of one of that state’s early marijuana laws has famously been quoted as saying that, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.” How surprised would that lawmaker have been to find out that people of Hispanic background are actually among the least likely to use drugs?

Racial stereotypes relating to drug use have their basis in various sources, whether personal observation, prejudice or to promote a certain agenda. However they arise, they are not always true, and can have harmful effects in terms of limiting the opportunities of those groups who are targeted. At least as bad as this is that such stereotypes also have a tendency to deflect attention away from the groups who actually are using more drugs and need help to avoid addiction and other serious health consequences.

The Texas lawmaker who incorrectly argued that Mexicans are all using marijuana is refuted by the results of the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Among other things, the 2011 NSDUH demonstrated that many of the most common conceptions about how rates of drug use line up along racial lines simply are not true:

  • The group with the lowest rates of illicit drug use was Asians, at 3.8%
  • Hispanics had the next-lowest rates of drug use, at 8.4%
  • White people abused drugs at a rate of 8.7%
  • Among African Americans, drug use was registered at a rate of 10%
  • Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders used drugs at a rate of 11%
  • American Indians and Alaska natives used drugs at a rate of 13.4%
  • Persons of two or more races had the highest rates of drug use, at 13.5%

So whereas many people hold a stereotype of Hispanics as being drug users, they actually are among the most sober ethnic groups. While many assume that people in Hispanic communities are more likely to be using drugs, the facts tend to go unnoticed, as in the case of a major increase in rates of heroin abuse in suburban communities over recent years. A more correct assumption might be that drug use is more common among those who are most severely marginalized by society, as in the case of the American Indians who have to a large degree been forced to the edges and mixed-race individuals who often have difficulty finding acceptance and a stable community.

Relation Between Gender and Drug Use

So according to the NSDUH survey, there are certain correlations between race and drug use, even if they aren’t all what many thought they were. What about gender? Are boys and men more likely to use drugs than girls and women? The survey also raised this question, and the answer is, “It depends.” Overall, males were found to be almost twice as likely to use drugs as females, with rates of 11.1% as compared with 6.5%. This gender gap in terms of drug use was most evident when it comes to marijuana, where males are again nearly twice as likely to use as females. When it comes to other drugs, however, there was not such a great disparity. Men were still more likely to use other types of drugs, but the difference was smaller:

  • Prescription drugs – 2.6% vs. 2.2%
  • Cocaine – .7% vs .4%
  • Hallucinogens – .5% vs. .3%

So males are far more likely to use drugs in general, but outside of smoking weed, there is only a small difference between them and females. The bottom line is that substance abuse is a problem that touches people from all walks of life, and it is never safe to assume that your child or spouse isn’t using drugs just because “she’s a girl,” or “people of our race don’t use drugs.” Be alert for the signs of drug use, and be ready to take action to handle the problem.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.