Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk says in this YouTube video that

The studies show that as well. Blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate but black people get arrested way more often for it.

Is it true that the proportions of black and white drug users are (approximately) the same in the USA, but the arrest rates there are (significantly or disproportionately) higher for black drug users than white drug users?


1 Answer 1


A similar claim is often made, but limited to the use of marijuana. For that, the Washington Post has a good overview. The results for overall drug use are similar to those results.

Drug use by race/ethnicity

The dataset that is used most often to evaluate claims like this is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

You can view the data here for 2011.

You can view a table showing data from 2012 here.

Basically, while white people tend to try drugs in higher numbers, looking at the "past month" value, it can be seen that black people do drugs in slightly higher numbers.

The same can be seen when looking at the number of days in the last month that Marijuana was consumed (the graph is generated from the 2011 data set):

graph: white and black people have a similar percentage who have tried drugs in the last year, but black people have more consistent regular usage.

Since some are cropped, the data labels are: (1) White, (2) Black/African American, (3) Native American/Alaskan Native, (4) Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, (5) Asian, (6) More than one race, (7) Hispanic.

This is a trend that can be seen over the years:

graph: drug use generally increasing among white, black, and hispanic/latino individuals, but consistently black people are using drugs more than white people (hispanics/latinos in the middle)

Arrests for drug offenses by race

slate.com and politifact.com have created a graph from data from the BJS:

graph: white people arrested for drugs at a rate of 250-500 hundred thousand per year, black people since 1990 have been arrested for the same at 1,500-2,500 hundred thousand per year.

politifact states:

[T]he National Research Council report says, "In recent years, drug-related arrest rates for blacks have been three to four times higher than those for whites. In the late 1980s, the rates were six times higher for blacks than for whites."

Human Rights Watch says:

In every year from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested nationwide on drug charges at rates relative to population that were 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.

Disparity between drug use and drug arrests

The above data shows that while black people do marginally more drugs, they are arrested disproportionately more often than white people.

politifact looked at a similar claim and concludes:

[...] African-Americans don't use drugs at a higher level than whites but wind up going to prison six times more. [...] We rate his claim Mostly True.

  • 46
    Good post, but what a horrible first graphic you quoted. No clue what the 3rd, 4th, and 6th bars represent…
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 11:52
  • 21
    Surely since illegal drug use is studied, these number are likely an underestimate? It's not like people are going to admit they do something illegal. Also, some races/communities may be better at hiding their drug use than others. I'm not disputing your answer - 6x is significant - my point is that drug use and racial bias and poverty are all linked and it's a very complicated knot to untie and make sense of.
    – user36447
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 13:05
  • 17
    Probably an ignorant question, but why the dramatic increase in arrest rate between 1980-1990?
    – user812786
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 15:37
  • 29
    @whrrgarbl Because of the war on drugs. While it started under Nixon, arrests didn't dramatically increase until the 80s under Reagan.
    – tim
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 15:58
  • 16
    I would love to see how this stacks up against SES data. I wonder if poor whites are still that much less likely to go to jail. Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 16:58

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