Prevalence of Substance Use Among Youth in the US, by Race/Ethnicity

"For a number of years, 12th grade African-American students reported lifetime, annual, 30-day, and daily prevalence levels for nearly all drugs that were lower – sometimes dramatically so – than those for White or Hispanic 12th graders. That is less true today, with levels of drug use among African Americans more similar to the other groups. This narrowing of the gap between African Americans and other racial/ethnic groups is also seen in 8th and 10th grade, indicating that this narrowing in 12th grade is almost certainly not due primarily to differential dropout rates.

"• Whites have the lowest levels of annual marijuana use in 8th grade, at 7.3% compared to 11.5% and 11.4% for African American and Hispanic students, respectively. In 10th and 12th grade annual marijuana use differs little by race/ethnicity.

"• A number of drugs have consistently been much less popular among African-American teens than among White teens. These include hallucinogens, sedatives (barbiturates), tranquilizers, and narcotics other than heroin. Several additional drugs have historically been less popular among African-American teens but did not show much difference in 2017 among 8th graders, though they still are less popular in the upper grades. These include LSD, ecstasy, cocaine (in recent years), cocaine other than crack, amphetamines, and Vicodin.

"• By 12th grade, White students have the highest lifetime and annual prevalence levels among the three major racial/ethnic groups for many substances, including hallucinogens other than LSD, MDMA (ecstasy, Molly), narcotics other than heroin, amphetamines, sedatives (barbiturates), tranquilizers, alcohol, and been drunk. The differentials for LSD have narrowed considerably in recent years as overall prevalence has declined substantially for this drug. Not all of these findings are replicated at lower grade levels, however. See Tables 4-5 and 4-6 for specifics.

"• Hispanics in 2017 had the highest annual prevalence at all three grade levels for any illicit drug, cocaine, crack, and cocaine other than crack. It bears repeating that Hispanics have a considerably higher dropout rate than Whites or African Americans, based on Census Bureau statistics, which should tend to diminish any such differences by 12th grade, yet there remain sizeable differences even in the upper grades.

"• An examination of racial/ethnic comparisons at lower grade levels shows Hispanics having higher levels of use of many of the substances on which they have the highest levels of use in 12th grade, as well as for several other drugs. For example, in 2017, cocaine other than crack had a lifetime prevalence in 8th grade for Hispanics, Whites, and African Americans of 1.5%, 0.9%, and 0.5%, respectively. In fact, in 8th grade – before most dropping out occurs – Hispanics had the highest levels of use of almost all substances, whereas by 12th grade Whites have the highest levels of use of most. Certainly the considerably higher dropout rate among Hispanics could help explain this shift, and it may be the most plausible explanation. Another explanation worth consideration is that Hispanics may tend to start using drugs at a younger age, but Whites overtake them at older ages. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course, and to some degree both explanations may hold true.14

"• Table 4-8 shows that White students have by far the highest prevalence of daily cigarette smoking while African American and Hispanic students are now fairly close to each other among all three grades, for example, 12th grade Whites have a 5.8% daily smoking prevalence, Hispanics, 1.9%, and African Americans, 2.5%.

"• Thirty-day prevalence of smokeless tobacco use is highest among White students in all three grades.

"• African-American students also have the lowest 30-day prevalence for alcohol use in all three grades. They also have the lowest prevalence for self-reports of having been drunk during the prior 30 days. The differences are largest at 12th grade, with 24% of Whites reporting having been drunk, 17% of Hispanics, and 10% of African Americans.

"• Recent heavy drinking (having five or more drinks in a row during the prior two weeks) is also lowest among African Americans in all three grades; in 12th grade, their level of use is 7.7% versus 20% for Whites and 14% for Hispanics. The corresponding prevalence levels for 10th grade are 4.7% for African Americans vs. 11.0% for Whites and 11.3% for Hispanics. In 8th grade, Hispanics have the highest prevalence at 4.9% compared to 3.0% for Whites and 2.9% for African Americans.

"• There are important differences in ADHD treatment related to student race/ethnicity. In general, White students are considerably more likely to have used prescription ADHD drugs at each grade than African American or Hispanic students. Current use of either subclass of drugs (stimulant or non-stimulant) is also substantially higher among White students than among African American or Hispanic students in all three grades, with the exception that these differences are somewhat smaller for non-stimulant drugs in grades 10 and 12. In all three grades, African Americans and Hispanics have lifetime levels of use that are close to each other. However, in 8th grade, Hispanics have a somewhat lower level than African Americans in current use of each class of drugs and of any ADHD drug, while in 10th and 12th grade there is little difference in their use. As to why White students are more likely to be treated with ADHD drugs than African American and Hispanic students, it again may well be due to White families being more likely to get access to, or being able to afford, professional assessment and treatment.

"• Levels of past-year use for diet pills have been lowest for African Americans in all years, and Whites have typically had the highest levels of use, with Hispanics in the middle. In 2017, levels of past-year use were about two times as high for Whites as compared to African Americans, at 5.0% and 2.4% respectively, with Hispanics at 2.6%. These racial/ethnic differences have diminished in recent years as overall prevalence has declined.

"• Levels of past-year use of stay-awake pills are about twice as high for Whites as they are for African Americans and Hispanics, at 2.5%, 1.1%, and 1.3%, respectively. Differences in these groups were larger in past years when overall prevalence was higher. Use of these types of substances has not varied consistently by any of the other subgroup categories."


Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E., & Patrick, M. E. (2018). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2017: Volume I, Secondary school students. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan. Available at