Jan. 10 2017

Scientists Present Evidence That Racism and Sexism Fuel Drug Use

Mailman School faculty map the complex intersections between discrimination, social status, and illegal drug use.

What makes people use illegal drugs? One popular explanation is that drugs help them cope with stress. But what factors drive that stress?

According to Mailman School researchers, racial discrimination and gender bias play a role. In a pair of recent studies, they found that African-Americans who experienced racial discrimination and women who experienced gender discrimination were each at least twice as likely to use illicit drugs like marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or pain pills without a medical reason.

Of course, racism and sexism aren’t the only factors behind drug use.

“We suspected that income and social status were also important parts of this story,” explains lead author Hannah Carliner, who until recently was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology.   

Carliner and co-investigators, including Mailman School professors Katherine Keyes and Deborah Hasin, looked at African-Americans responding to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, 24.6 percent of whom reported experiencing discrimination in the past year. Episodes of bias as they applied for jobs, tried to secure housing, and during interactions with the criminal justice system were most associated with drug use. Socioeconomic status also came into play. The results appeared in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

The Mailman researchers observed a relationship between frequent illicit drug use and racial discrimination, but only among blacks with income above 150 percent of the poverty line. The link between discrimination and drug use was also and more pronounced among those with more than a high school education.

Yet when it came to gender discrimination, social status tilted the scales in the other direction. In a separate study, also published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, the researchers found that of the 8.9 percent of women reporting gender bias, less educated women are nearly 4 times as likely to use drugs, compared to women who are more educated.

“Having a bigger paycheck doesn’t always mean the same thing when it comes to drug risk,” says Carliner, “It’s important to consider the kind of discrimination and who is experiencing it.”

How regularly someone experiences discrimination may also make a difference. African-Americans who aren’t poor may face discrimination more often than someone who lives below the poverty line. The same may be true of low-income women.

In their analysis of the relationships between discrimination by race and gender and socioeconomic status, the researchers referenced Kimberle Crenshaw, a black feminist scholar, who coined the term “intersectionality” to explain the complex nature of social identity.

“If you are a poor black woman,” Carliner explains, “you cannot disentangle your race, your gender, or your socioeconomic status from your day-to-day.”

Going forward, the researchers say they’d like to drill down to understand the specific forms of discrimination that are most likely to lead to drug use, and to what extent stress is an intermediary. But at the end of the day, says Carliner, no manner of unconscious slights, hateful epithets, or organizational-level prejudices is ever welcome.  

“If discrimination is like a poison, then the more you get of it, the worse you are,” she says, “and the more likely you are to use drugs.”