Fun With Numbers: High School Student Drug Use Edition

by Sara Mayeux

Regarding my post on mass incarceration yesterday, some folks in comments, as well as TNC himself, had some questions about the statistics I threw out on student drug use by race. Since I was just rounding up some things I heard on a podcast, I wasn't exactly sure about the data myself (its sources, how terms were being defined, etc.). Since it all jibed well enough with my impressions of what I've read in non-podcast form, I didn't hesitate to post it on the understanding that blogs are springboards for investigation more than repositories thereof. Obviously, I would not recommend that anyone cite a blog post of mine for definitive statistics on teenage drug use.

But once people started asking, I too became more curious about the numbers. So, since I happen to have the luxury of spending much of my time in a well-endowed university library, I walked downstairs to the basement, where there is a repository of federal government documents. Lo and behold, there were shelves upon shelves of fat volumes stuffed with all the charts, spreadsheets, and government-funded handwringing over the "epidemic of youth drug use OMG!" that you could ever want to read. 

Many of these volumes were published through the Monitoring the Future project, which as someone noted yesterday in comments, has been conducting annual surveys of high schoolers since 1975. It's a project of the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (and obviously, apply all the usual caveats about survey data—maybe in comments, some social scientists among The Horde/Team Commie can chime in as to how reliable this data is considered). You can get some of their reports at their website, but it looks like the most comprehensive and easy-to-flip-through data sets may only be available in print at your nearest library with a good government docs collection.

What I found when I started reading was pretty interesting. You know, we hear a lot about how black students lag behind in test scores, graduation rates, and the like. Well, it turns out they've also been lagging way behind in their drug use, drinking, and cigarette smoking! On just about every metric their white and Hispanic classmates really have them beat. Here's the overview of what the MTF folks found once they disaggregated the data by race. This is taken from pp. 89-91 of the 2003 volume (which is in the public domain, so hey, I can quote as much of it as I want!):

First, for virtually all drugs, licit and illicit, African American students in 12th grade reported lifetime, annual, 30-day, and daily prevalence-of-use rates that are lower—sometimes dramatically lower—than those for White or Hispanic seniors.

Second, use rates for most drugs are generally lower for African American students in 8th and 10th grades, as well as 12th; therefore, the low usage rates in 12th grade almost certainly are not due to differential dropout rates. There is an important exception with respect to marijuana use ... In 8th grade, African American students have slightly higher rates of lifetime marijuana use than White students and roughly equivalent rates of past-year and 30-day use. ...

The third general point is that by 12th grade, White students have the highest lifetime and annual prevalence-of-use rates for many substances, including marijuana, inhalants, LSD, hallucinogens other than LSD, MDMA, heroin, heroin without a needle, other narcotics, amphetamines, methamphetamine, sedatives (barbiturates), methaqualone, tranquilizers, alcohol (in general), been drunk, occasions of heavy drinking (in last 2 weeks), cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and steroids. Not all of these findings are replicated at lower grade levels, however.

Hispanics, taken as a group, now have the highest lifetime, annual, and 30-day prevalence-of-use rates in their senior year for crack; the highest lifetime and annual rates for heroin with a needle, ice, and steroids; and the highest lifetime rate for other cocaine. Their rate of cocaine use has tended to be particularly high ... 
An examination of the racial/ethnic comparisons at lower grade levels shows Hispanics having higher rates of use of nearly all the substances on which they have the highest prevalence of use in 12th grade, as well as of several other drugs. For example, in 8th grade, 4.7% of Hispanic students reported ever having used crack, compared to 2.3% of White students and 1.5% of African American students. ... In other words, in 8th grade—before most dropping out occurs, Hispanics have the highest rates of use of all the substances except amphetamines and smokeless tobacco, whereas by 12th grade, Whites have the highest rates of use of most drugs. Certainly the considerably higher dropout rate among Hispanics could explain this shift, and it may be the most plausible explanation. Another explanation worth considering is that Hispanics may tend to start using drugs at a younger age but that Whites overtake them at older ages. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course ...

... African Americans have dramatically lower smoking rates than Whites or Hispanics at all grade levels except for lifetime use among 8th graders.

African American students have the lowest lifetime, annual, and 30-day prevalence rates for alcohol use. They also have the lowest rates for self-reports of having been drunk.

If you want to compare this data to arrest and incarceration statistics by race, Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, provides a good summary. Even if you disagree with her thesis or title, I think you'll find her summary of the disparities pretty thorough. She's noted that in some states, blacks are 80 to 90 percent of those sent to prison for drug offenses. Often when you have these conversations someone interjects with, "But no one goes to prison just for using drugs! All those people in prison are dealers." And I certainly don't want to discount the fact that, for instance, there was probably some number of black teenagers selling crack on street corners even if they weren't doing crack themselves, and that this might account for some amount of the disparity.

But still, we do need to ask the question of where the police are going to find their dealers. As Portia noted in comments yesterday, they generally aren't knocking on the doors of college dorms, and I'd guess that goes for predominantly white suburban high school parking lots, as well. I didn't see any statistics in the volume I consulted about drug sales, and while the MTF survey does ask about availability, but I couldn't find those numbers broken down by race. Maybe I'll see if I can track down numbers on selling, but in the meantime, if we assume that school and residential segregation structure the drug market to some degree, then that would lead me to believe that plenty of white kids are selling drugs to each other. (Hey, even at my predominantly black high school, I would have asked another white kid if I had wanted cocaine, marijuana, or MDMA, because they were the ones who seemed to be doing these things most frequently. Not that the plural of this anecdote is data, of course.)

Here are some more specific data points from the 2003 volume—so as not to overload this blog with figures, I've arbitrarily selected 1990 and 2000, the 30-day prevalence for 12th graders, and just a sample basket of drugs to compare. If you look through the data yourself, you can go wild comparing by geographic area, gender, college plans, population density of hometown, parental education levels, etc. and also look at drugs I'm not including here like hallucinogens, MDMA, steroids, OxyContin... whatever suits your fancy. As always, these are my transcriptions so apologies for any scrivener's errors.

In the meantime, based on these statistics, I would just say to parents that if you are worried your kids are going to start doing drugs or drinking, by all means keep them far away from the white kids!

% of 12th graders in this group who used drug in last 12 months:

marijuana-- white 31.6%, black 13.7%, Hispanic 21.6%
cocaine-- white 6.3%, black 1.7%, Hispanic 7.4%
crack-- white 2.1%, black 1.3%, Hispanic 4.2%
other cocaine-- white 5.3%, black 0.7%, Hispanic 5.1%
heroin-- white 0.6%, black 0.3%, Hispanic 0.3%

marijuana-- white 38.2%, black 30%, Hispanic 40.5%
cocaine-- white 6.2%, black 1%, Hispanic 7.6%
crack-- white 2.5%, black 0.5%, Hispanic 3.4%
other cocaine-- white 5.7%, black 1%, Hispanic 6.6%
heroin-- white 1.3%, black 0.5%, Hispanic 2%
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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