Black and white Americans use drugs at similar rates. One group is punished more for it.

(Joe Posner / Vox)

African Americans are hit much harder than any other racial or ethnic group by the war on drugs, even when there's no evidence of significantly higher drug usage or sales. The most obvious disparity appears between white and black Americans: Both groups use and sell, according to some studies, illicit drugs at similar rates, but black people are roughly 2.6 times as likely to get arrested for drug crimes.

What's behind the disparities? Sometimes, racism and the subconscious racial biases of law enforcement are major factors. But often, it's a collision of socioeconomic trends and otherwise race-neutral policies. One example, from a Sentencing Project report released in February: "Socioeconomic inequality does lead people of color to disproportionately use and sell drugs outdoors, where they are more readily apprehended by police."

These types of disparities cascade down through the war on drugs and the rest of the criminal justice system, leading to the racially divided results shown in the chart above.

How does the US decide which drugs are regulated or banned?


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