Substance Abuse, Native Youth, and Reversing a Harsh Trend

Native American youth

Drug addiction and alcohol misuse are human problems. By that I mean, this crippling crisis can befall anyone. No one is immune to the threat of addiction. No amount of money or social status can protect someone from the risk of addiction. No ethnic background, upbringing, lifestyle, career, religion, or geographic location can protect a person from the threat of substance abuse.

However, some groups do tend to fall prey to addiction more often than others. Countless theories and ideas have come forth to explain such occurrences but most theories have fallen by the wayside as they simply could not hold up under close inspection.

One theory, however, has persisted. This theory is that the groups which exist under poor socioeconomic conditions are those that struggle the most with substance abuse.

If we want to see proof of this, the best place to look is not in American ghettos, inner-city slums, or poor farming towns (though such conditions do exist in those places). The best place to look is actually on an Indian reservation.

Poor Socioeconomic Conditions Tied to High Levels of Drug Use among Native Youth

Poor Navajo Indian reservation
Poor Indian reservation, Navajo

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded a study that was performed by the Colorado State University. A summary of the survey is available at NIDA’s website, and the full research paper was published at the JAMA Network Open.

The research delivered anonymous surveys to Native American youth and non-Native youth. According to the study, the Native youth displayed significantly higher rates of marijuana use, alcohol use, tobacco use, and illicit drug use.

The surveys were delivered online, were kept strictly anonymous, and relied on the participants’ honest answers for accuracy. Here are some of the survey findings, summarized in bullet points below:

  • The survey was directed at eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders actively enrolled in school. The questions related to drug use within the past 30 days and drug use over one’s lifetime.
  • The same questions asked of Native youth were directed at about 50,000 eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders who were also actively enrolled in school.
  • According to the study, eighth-grade Native American youths were 3.4 times more likely to have used marijuana at least once than their non-Native counterparts. The degree of disparity reduces later on in adolescence but twelfth-grade Native American youths were still 1.6 times more likely to have used marijuana at least once than their non-Native twelfth-grade counterparts.
  • The trends are similar for current marijuana use as well. An eighth-grade Native American youth is 4.8 times more likely to be a current marijuana user than a non-Native eighth grader. A twelfth-grade Native American youth is 1.6 times more likely to be a current marijuana user than a non-Native twelfth grader.
  • The study also examined “lifetime rates” of substance abuse, meaning whether or not the respondents had ever used a particular drug in their lifetime. For eighth-grade Native youth, 39 percent had used alcohol at least once, 31 percent had used cigarettes, 22.9 percent had been drunk, and 16 percent had used illicit drugs other than marijuana.
  • When we look at the statistics on lifetime rates of substance abuse for Native tenth and twelfth graders, the numbers go up. For example, an eighth-grade Native youth has a 16 percent chance of ever having used an illicit drug other than marijuana (as mentioned above). A twelfth-grade Native youth, however, has a 24 percent chance of ever having used an illegal drug other than marijuana.
Native American guy

These rates of illicit drug use at a very young age are much higher than they are for non-Native youth. Why is that?

There are plenty of reasons. The National Congress of American Indians cites generational abuse, eroding traditional values, and destabilizing families as being significant factors. Other experts would say that this sort of thing has been a problem for centuries. They would say it started with colonial Americans pressing alcohol upon Native tribes, not only because it was suitable for trade, but because it turned the Native men from being staunch adversaries in various territorial conflicts to, for lack of a better term, manipulatable drunks.

Without even looking at historical contexts, we can see some of the underlying causes of soaring drug and alcohol use on Native reservations by merely looking at the reservations themselves. These are some of the most impoverished communities in the country, with some Native tribes reporting unemployment rates of 85 percent, according to a group called Running Strong.

How Do We Fix This Problem?

On paper, the answer is quite simple. Reduce the socioeconomic disparity among class systems in America. But that discussion quickly leaves the realm of a well-intended goal of health and prosperity for all and becomes instead a political debate. And it’s a great shame that the health and happiness of underprivileged sectors of the American population would be a subject of heated discussion in the political spectrum and not something that we can all just agree on.

What can we do, what can the reservations do, and what is currently being done to address the fact that Native American youth have alarmingly higher levels of drug use than non-Native youth?

  • Early prevention efforts are critical. Native communities are making efforts towards reinstating their core, traditional values with some resulting benefit.
  • Improving education and increasing commerce on reservations is extremely important as well. According to the article cited above in Running Strong, “The emergence of tribal colleges and universities located on reservation lands has improved educational prospects, and the number of tribal-owned and operated businesses has increased in recent decades.”
  • The federal government also needs to adjust its policies towards reservations, tribal judicial systems, etc. The 2013 U.S. Violence Against Women Act authorized tribal leaders to prosecute Native and non-Native perpetrators within their communities. That has increased the safety of Native reservations and has reduced crimes of abuse, particularly those committed by non-Natives against Natives. This is quite relevant since being a victim of physical abuse is a common predictor of future drug use or heavy drinking on the part of the victim.
  • Last but not least, Native American youth and adults alike need access to residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs when addiction is present. Prevention efforts are crucial and will significantly help to reduce youth drug use. But the only way to eliminate the problem completely is to ensure that those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol receive proper care. The best and safest way to tackle and eliminate a drug problem is with the help of a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center.

We’re all in this together. We are a country built on cultural diversity. We might be the only nation in the world with residents and citizens from almost every nation in the world living here. The drug problem can affect anyone, but we can’t let that hide the fact that some groups suffer more than others do. We can only win at life when all of us are healthy, happy, and strong.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.