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The Tinge of the Drug Crisis: Black Americans and Opioids

by Krystina Murray ❘  

Black Americans and Opioids: An Overlooked Tragedy

The opioid epidemic in America is impacting the lives of millions of people every day. Last year 72,000 American lives were lost to opioids. Many of these victims of fatal overdoses were to opioids like fentanyl, carfentanil, heroin, and prescription opioids. Most of the victims are white men and women. Although white men and women experience higher percentages of opioid overdoses, the numbers of overdoses involving Black Americans and opioids have been increasing over the last 8 years. Opioid-related deaths increased in black communities by 41% in 2016 alone.

In particular, Chicago, Illinois and Washington D.C. see high rates of black deaths from opioid abuse, concerning health officials. Indiana is also witnessing fentanyl overdoses affecting the black population. In recent years, there have been alarming increases of opioid use in the black community. Between 2015 and 2016, there was a 56.1% spike in opioid-related overdoses in the black community. In 2011, Indiana saw 3% of the black population overdose from opioids. By 2017, 61% of black overdoses involved traces of fentanyl. In recent years, most of the increase in black opioid-related overdoses is the increasing overdose rates among black women.

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Transition to Illicit Opioids in the Black Community

Heroin (and non-opioid drugs like cocaine) use have been common in some inner-city, urban black communities since the 1970s. Contributing factors range from the challenging circumstances of inner-city life and racial discrimination to the availability of the substance in black communities. The financial struggles of inner-city living has driven some inhabitants to turn to selling drugs to survive, which has also contributed drug availability and addiction involving Black Americans and opioids. Cocaine’s widespread availability created a dangerous escape from the hardships of inner-city living. Some members of this population were also exposed to heroin for the same reasons.

With the availability of cocaine, members in the black community who abuse this drug can unknowingly ingest illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl. Black populations struggling with substance abuse, similarly, to their white counterparts, have gained exposure to fentanyl without their knowing. Drug dealers often sneak fentanyl, a substance 100 times more addictive than morphine in cocaine to create a more addicting substance. There is widely suspected to be a connection between 1970s drug use and new cases overdoses involving Black Americans and opioids where the victims are 45- to 64-year-old individuals.

Racial Theories for Prescription Opioid Distribution


The reasons for opioid abuse is complex, differing for each group that is affected. For white communities, synthetic opioid dependencies emerge as a result of abusing prescription opioids after severe injuries. Individuals struggling with opioid abuse disorders easily transition to craving opioids. As a result, they can begin to seek out substances like heroin or fentanyl to replace Hydrocodone or Codeine.

There is a widespread belief that the cautious attitudes some doctors have regarding black patients and pain tolerance has impacted the prevalence of prescription opioid abuse in the black community. Many doctors assume that black patients have a higher pain tolerance and do not need the same dosages of medication. Many doctors are reluctant to distribute medication because of racially-based assumptions that injured black patients would sell pills versus using them to heal their painful conditions.

Such examples of subtle discrimination and racism impact the response of black patients have to severely painful ailments needing medication. The lack of medical treatment may encourage injured black patients to seek illegal synthetic opioids, often laced with fentanyl. A final theory are the strained relationships black men and women have with law officials. Due to negative stereotypes black people receive from police, they are less likely to report overdoses or seek treatment for opioid abuse.

Concerns with Rising Death Rates involving Black Americans and Opioids

Despite the historically high rates of cocaine use in the black community,  the bigger current issue is the increasing numbers of abused synthetic opioids. In 2014, numbers of black opioid-related deaths began to rise similar to white opioid-related deaths. Other substances like methamphetamines and benzodiazepines used in the black community are beginning to include traces of fentanyl.

The addition of fentanyl to these drugs, along with the mixture of fentanyl and heroin, or fentanyl or cocaine may be too much for those seeking a high to bear. Because of this destructive combination, a new wave of opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths concern many that there will be higher death tolls in black victims moving forward.

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