Abstract Background Treatment for drug use disorders (DUD) can be effective, but only a small proportion of people with DUD seek or receive treatment. Research on racial and ethnic treatment differences and disparities remains unclear. Understanding racial and ethnic differences and disparities in drug treatment is necessary in order to develop a more effective referral system and to improve the accessibility of treatment. The purpose of the current study was to explore the role of race and ethnicity in service utilization. Methods Using data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), this study examined racial and ethnic differences in use of 14 types of treatment services for DUD and 27 different treatment barriers among persons who met lifetime criteria for a DUD. Multivariate logistic regression analyses were used to examine service utilization and barriers among the racial and ethnic groups, while adjusting for other sociodemographic and clinical variables. Results and discussion Among Blacks, Hispanics and Whites in the overall NESARC sample, approximately 10.5% met criteria for at least one lifetime drug use disorder. Approximately 16.2% of persons with a lifetime DUD received at least one type of service. Overall, this study indicated that Whites were less likely to report receiving help for drug-related problems than Blacks, Blacks used a greater number of different types of services, and no racial and ethnic differences were observed with respect to perceived barriers to drug treatment. However, by examining types of services separately, a complex picture of racial and ethnic differences emerges. Most notably, Whites were most likely to use professional services, whereas Blacks were most likely to use 12-step and clergy. The service use pattern of Hispanics most resembled that of Whites. Conclusion While structural barriers to accessing treatment were observed, broad-based educational programs and interventions that are appropriately targeted to racial and ethnic groups remains an important area for prevention and treatment.