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10 Ways Racial Discrimination Continues to Affect Drug Policy, Addiction, and Recovery

10 Ways Racial Discrimination Continues to Affect Drug Policy, Addiction, and Recovery

Picture courtesy of Rose Colored Photo

by Jason Whitney

1.     Drug war policing: “People of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug violations than are whites” (Drug Policy Alliance). [i]

2.     Crack cocaine sentencing: “Since the 1980s, federal penalties for crack cocaine were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine, with African Americans disproportionately sentenced to longer terms. “ (Drug Policy Alliance).[ii]

3.     “Lifelong penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction . . . fall more heavily on people and communities of color (Drug Policy Alliance). [iii]

4.     White-owned pharmaceutical companies are legally allowed to operate as cartels, even while the drug war incarcerates people of color at alarming rates. The Stamford, CT.-based Purdue Pharma has made 14 billion for its owners, the Sackler family, primarily through sales of OxyContin. Although the Sacklers are directly implicated in tens of thousands of deaths, the family has been relatively successful at fending off lawsuits, and they recently made the Forbes 2015 list of richest families (Eban, 2011).  [iv] Don’t believe for a second they are unaware that their clientele is largely comprised of nonmedical users:  Wall Street analysts Cowen and Co. state that enough painkillers were prescribed to “medicate every American adult around the clock for a month” (Morrell, 2015).[v]

5.     When the frontlines for the drug war was “based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences.” Only very recently, with the heroin crisis reaching deep into white, middle class suburban America, an “army of white families are only now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs” (Seelve, 2015).[vi]

6.     A major review of national alcohol surveys revealed that African Americans and Hispanic/Latino people were found to receive treatment at a lower rate than European Americans.[vii]

7.     Barriers to education have been shown to be barriers to recovery, particularly among young people. Although Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) have shown promise in helping students in recovery succeed in college, this resource has benefitted young people with considerable social capital and recovery capital, which is often a function of increased access to quality college preparation and quality acute treatment, both of which are conditions of privilege favoring white people, which may help explain the overwhelmingly white memberships of CRPs, and barriers to loans and other lifelong consequences are barriers disproportionately experienced by persons of color (see #3).

8.     Black people are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses, and thus black people are disproportionately traumatized by incarceration.[viii] The psychological and physical wounds suffered are often profound. Also the incarceration of parents is deeply traumatizing to children. [ix]

9.     Recovery culture can be slow to affirm multiple pathways to recovery, and black people may be discouraged from utilizing alternative pathways, especially the most culturally traditional pathway of black recovery, that accomplished in [black] churches. From an NIH report: “the health care establishment must recognize that the inclusion of spirituality is important to the process of recovery from all illnesses. Research has shown that integration of culturally specific factors such as spirituality into treatment of substance abuse is consistently associated with better outcomes and lower rates of relapse.” [x]   

10.  A shortage of professionals of color in the treatment and recovery support fields is not likely to be addressed anytime soon as there currently exists no significant pipeline to remedy the situation.  [xi]






Jason Whitney
Program Coordinator, Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community
Board of Directors, Association of Recovery in Higher Education


[i]   Drug Policy Alliance | Guiding Drug Law Reform & Advocacy. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2016, from

[ii]   Ibid.

[iii]  Ibid.

[iv]  Eban, K. (2011, Nov. 9). Oxycontin:  Purdue Pharma’s painful medicine.   Fortune.   Retrieved from

[v]  Morrell, A. (2015, July 1). The OxyContin Clan: The $14 Billion Newcomer to Forbes 2015 List of Richest U.S. Families. Forbes.  Retrieved February 26, 2016, from

[vi] Seelye, K. Q. (2015, October 30). In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[vii] Zemore, S. E., Murphy, R. D., Mulia, N., Gilbert, P. A., Martinez, P., Bond, J., & Polcin, D. L. (2014). A Moderating Role for Gender in Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Alcohol Services Utilization: Results from the 2000 to 2010 National Alcohol Surveys. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 38(8), 2286–2296.

[viii] Haney, C.  (2001, December 1)  The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment. (2015, November 23). Retrieved February 26, 2016, from

[ix] Hairston, C.  (2007) Focus on children with incarcerated parents.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Retrieved February 26, 2016, from

[x] Staff, M. N. (2013, March 30). African Americans, Substance Abuse and Spirituality. Retrieved February 26, 2016, from

[xi] Pfefferle, S.G, & Gibson, T.S. (2010). Minority Recruitment for the 21st Century: An environmental Scan. Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates, Inc.

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