“Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites.”
Drug Policy Alliance website

An intriguing quote by a former aide to disgraced US President Richard Nixon is making headlines.

Harper’s Magazine reports a 1994 conversation with John Ehrlichman, a key White House policy adviser, in which Ehrlichman claims that the “war on drugs” Nixon declared in 1971 was rooted in racism.

Ehrlichman is quoted as saying: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people.

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.

“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

If accurate, the quote appears to confirm what many critics of US drug policy have long alleged – that there is a racial bias built into the way drug crime is handled by the justice system.

But what are the hard facts?

The analysis

Drug use

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s latest national survey of drug use suggests a similar prevalence of drug use among blacks and whites.

Some 12.4 per cent of black people aged 12 or over said they had used illegal drugs in the past month. For white people it was 10.4 per cent:

A slightly greater prevalence of recent drug use among black people – of one or two percentage points – is a consistent historical trend:

These figures related to all drugs across all age groups. “White” here doesn’t include people of Hispanic/latino origin.

But for some sub-sets of the population, like 18-25 year-olds using marijuana in the last year, whites are consistently more likely to take drugs than blacks.

Drug dealing

If evidence from the SAMHSA surveys is accurate, rates of drug dealing also appear to be similar among blacks and whites.

In this 2010 study on 12 to 17-year-olds – based on data from SAMHSA – 4.5 per cent of white boys and 2 per cent of white girls admitted selling drugs.

For black boys and girls, the rates were 6.4 per cent and 1.6 per cent respectively.

Jonathan Rothwell from US think-tank Brookings looked at the 2012 national survey and found that 6.6 per cent of whites aged 12 to 25 sold drugs compared to 5 per cent of blacks.


Despite evidence of similar rates of using and selling illegal drugs, black Americans are much more likely to be arrested for drug offences than whites.

The latest FBI statistics show that just over 350,000 black people were arrested for drug abuse violations in 2014, compared to more than 830,000 “white” people (these figures don’t distinguish between Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites).

If we run that through US Census statistics for 2014, we get 339 arrests per 100,000 white people (Hispanic and non-Hispanic) and 841 arrests per 100,000 blacks.

That suggests black people were about two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for a drug offence in America in 2014.

This is not unusual. Drug arrest rates per 100,000 people have consistently been much higher for blacks for more than a decade:

Focusing specifically on marijuana possession, the American Civil Liberties Union found a similar disparity in arrest rates in the 2000s, noting that there was a racial divide in the numbers of arrests in every state in America.


In 2014 there were more than 117,000 black people in federal or state facilities after being sentenced for a drug offence, compared to more than 88,000 white and nearly 76,000 Hispanic people, according to the US Department of Justice.

Given the demographic differences, this means black incarceration rates are much higher.

A black American was twice as likely to be in federal or state custody for drug crime as someone of Hispanic origin and more than six times more likely to be behind bars than a white person:

Some campaigners say the way the authorities deal with marijuana use is particularly unfair.

Researchers have found that African-Americans in California are ten times more likely to be imprisoned for smoking marijuana than other racial groups.


It’s tempting to blame these disparities on racism among individuals in the police and judiciary, but there are alternative explanations.

Notoriously, sentencing rules introduced in the 1980s to halt the spread of crack cocaine disproportionately affected African-Americans.

For many years, possession of 5g of crack could trigger a five-year minimum sentence, compared to 500g of powdered cocaine. The ratio was reduced from 100:1 to 18:1 in the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.

There are other elements of self-fulfilling prophecy in the sentencing statistics.

Human Rights Watch put it like this: “The likelihood of incarceration increases if the defendant has a prior conviction. Since blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites on drug charges, they are more likely to acquire the convictions that ultimately lead to higher rates of incarceration.”

But why are far more black people arrested?

Some researchers have found that the way police tackle drug crime almost inevitably discriminates against blacks without individual officers necessarily being racist.

The suggestion is that police departments tend to focus their efforts on outdoor drug markets in low-income urban neighbourhoods, where more offenders are likely to be black.

It has also been suggested that police stop-and-frisk tactics tend to be racially biased, increasing the chances of arrests for drug possession among minority groups.

On the other hand, there are dozens of studies that show African-Americans face unfair sentencing outcomes across a range of types of crime, not just drug possession and dealing.

The verdict

We ought to point out that most of the statistics we’ve quoted here aren’t perfect. The FBI arrest figures are incomplete and make it hard to distinguish between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white offenders.

The evidence on the prevalence of drug use relies on people being honest when answering a questionnaire.

But all of the data we have suggests a massive disparity between the rates of drug use among black and white people, and the probable legal consequences for those individuals.

Black and white Americans appear to be similarly likely to use or sell illicit substances, but blacks are currently about two-and-half times more likely to be arrested and about six times more likely to be serving a prison sentence for drugs.