In the wake of the death of George Floyd and the ongoing civil unrest and conversations regarding race, racial inequity, racial inequality, and racism taking place throughout America, we wanted to take a moment to look at how addiction impacts America’s African American community.


First, it is important to point out the complexity of this issue. Addiction as a conversation cannot leave out the vitally important issue of the War on Drugs, which, based on social policy and criminal justice initiatives was a war on black people and other disenfranchised populations.


African Americans represent 14.2% of the total population in America, however, when looking at the impact addiction and substance use disorder has on the black community in America is startling. According to statistics related solely to alcohol, African Americans tend to drink less, start drinking at a later age, and abuse or misuse alcohol less frequently than other races. However, according to the American Psychological Association, African Americans suffer more negative consequences as a result of abusing or misusing alcohol. Some of these consequences are illness, increased injuries, and negative social consequences.


In terms of drugs, in 2016, 20.4% (6 million) African Americans age 18 and older reported using illicit drugs in the past year, which was higher than the national average. African Americans misuse substances at about the same rate as other races, however, there is a disproportionate rate of consequences (specifically drug arrests) for African Americans. In addition, members of the African American community experience added or additional barriers when attempting to access treatment for drug addiction or substance use disorder. Although African Americans make up only 14.2 percent of the population and make up 12.5% of illicit drug use, 33% of incarcerations due to drugs are black Americans.


The disproportionate amount of legal and criminal issues and incarcerations of black Americans due to drugs (using drugs, possession of drugs, selling drugs) then begins a vicious cycle of additional barriers in the lives of these individuals in terms of education, employment, and ability to find quality of life. This further impacts and impedes progress within the black community and within black homes.


In a recent University of Pennsylvania study, it was found that black individuals, including those with means and/or private insurance, are half as likely as whites to receive treatment for addiction. Specifically looking at the opioid crisis and non-fatal opioid overdose patients, the study found that even those African Americans with private insurance are rarely connected to addiction treatment after visiting an Emergency Room or Emergency Department. A conclusion of the study demonstrated racial inequity as the issue and not means or wealth. According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, it was found that “private insurance- which most Americans get through employers- is a marker of relative affluence. So, this study finds, as others have, that race and not poverty can spell the difference in getting needed care” for addiction. The study examined the records of a large private health insurance company of more the 6500 opioid overdose patients who were treated at an emergency room or emergency department between 2011 and 2016.


Within the African American population in America, 2.2 million people age 18 or older meet criteria for a substance use disorder, 4.8 million people age 18 or older live with a mental illness, and 1.1 million people age 18 or older meet criteria for a co-occurring disorder of substance use disorder and mental illness. The rates of African Americans that misuse substances and suffer from addiction have held steady since 2015. However, again, the rate of African Americans that receive treatment, often due to barriers to access of care, is much less than that of white Americans.


Over the last decade plus, as America’s addiction crisis (and specifically the opioid epidemic) became a nationwide public health issue, the narrative throughout America changed. For years, America’s War on Drugs perpetuated a criminal justice effort towards those individuals caught up in the grips of addiction, with a clear focus on African Americans. In the 1980s, black people impacted by addiction were victims of mass incarceration efforts, made out to be a destructive force on American society during the cocaine and crack epidemics of the 1980s. However, as the opioid epidemic pushed the public face of addiction from the black urban community out into the white suburbs and urban communities, the tone changed from “lock up the criminals” to “addiction is a disease and a public health issue.” More calls for an understanding of addiction as an illness and compassion for those suffering from addiction were heard in communities, from government, and in the media. Although addiction has always impacted the American society as a whole, when the national coverage of addiction began to demonstrate the devastating impact substance use disorder was having on the rural white communities and suburban communities of affluence, suddenly addiction became less a crime and individual drug users as criminals than addiction was now an illness and public health crisis and those individuals and families suffering from addiction were sick and in need of treatment. We heard less about incarceration and more about the need for access to treatment and medical care, even while black Americans were still being incarcerated at higher rates for longer sentences for drug-related offenses than whites in similar situations. The impact of addiction on the black communities throughout America is not just the impact that substances have on individual African Americans, but also how addiction and our societal approach to addiction impact people of color in a different, detrimental, negative way than it does white Americans suffering from addiction. Addiction has always been an equal opportunity offender- destroying the lives of people of all colors, creeds, races, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. However, the American approach to addiction and the individuals caught in the grips of substance use disorder has been very different depending on race.


A last point regarding the racial inequity in America related to the impact addiction has on the African American community. Addiction continues to be one of American society’s most complex issues and, before COVID-19, its most prevalent public health crisis. Millions of Americans, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic stature are impacted by addiction. However, as seemingly is the case with other issues throughout America, the African American population is impacted at a higher rate and there is a greater disparity in accessing quality care. As we as a society look inward to find ways to create true equality for African Americans and all American citizens, we must also examine our laws and policies related to criminal justice, incarceration, approaches to addiction and mental health treatment, beliefs surrounding substance use disorder and mental illness, acknowledge existing systemic issues within our current system, and work towards positive change.


If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (410) 773-0500 or email our team at For more information on all of our drug addiction, alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorder services and recovery resources, please visit our web site at

african american woman addiction issues

Table of Contents