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Research Summary

African-American Adolescents Are Less Likely to Sell or Use Illicit Drugs but More Likely to Be Arrested

African-American youths have higher arrest rates than their white counterparts. To assess the relationship between race, illicit substance use, criminal behaviors, and arrest rates, researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1997 and included 5796 youths who were reinterviewed in 2003. The baseline survey included information on arrests, alcohol or illicit drug use, selling drugs, and other illegal activity. Multivariable analysis took into account family income, urbanicity, and living in a high-crime or high-unemployment area. The youth were divided into 2 age groups: 12–14 years or 15–17 years at baseline.

  • African-American youths were more likely than white youths to have been arrested more than once (3.1% versus 1.3% in the younger group; 6.5% versus 4.1% in the older group).
  • White youths had higher rates of alcohol and other drug use and were more likely to report drug-selling activity. There was no significant difference between groups in other illegal behaviors.
  • In multivariable analysis, African-American youths were significantly more likely to be arrested once (adjusted odds ratio [AOR], 2.18) or multiple times (AOR, 2.20).
  • African Americans with arrest histories at baseline were less likely than their white counterparts to have completed high school (AOR, 2.43).


This study sheds some light on the ways in which African Americans are disproportionately involved in the criminal-justice system. The findings are particularly disturbing in that these arrests will have lifelong implications. Unfortunately, the study did not collect data on why the subjects were arrested; while it is likely that many (if not most) of the arrests were for drug-related crimes, we need more detailed data before drawing any conclusions on the implications with regard to US drug laws and the ways in which they are enforced. In the meantime, as clinicians, we need to be aware of this disparity and the affect that it has on vulnerable youth. Darius A. Rastegar, MD


Kakade M, Duarte CS, Liu X, et al. Adolescent substance use and other illegal behaviors and racial disparities in criminal justice system involvement: findings from a US national survey. Am J Pub Health. 2012;102(7):1307–1310.