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The grim reality of drug overdoses still grips many Americans, and racial inequality plays a role in how it is viewed and handled.

In 2020, drug overdose death rates among Black Americans overtook those of White Americans for the first time since the 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“There are many known systemic racial inequities in the U.S. health care system, as well as the criminal justice system. Abundant data show that Black people and other communities of color have been disproportionately harmed by decades of addressing drug use as a crime rather than as a matter of public health,”  Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institute of Health (NIH) told The Final Call.

“Compared to White people, Black and Hispanic people are more likely to be imprisoned after drug arrests and are less likely to receive treatment for substance use disorders. As a result, non-Hispanic Black people have not benefited equally from prevention and treatment efforts, compared to people of other races and ethnicities,” she added.


In November it was reported that over 100,000 Americans died from overdoses in the past 12 months, a death toll nearly 10-times higher than the rate seen 20 years ago.  Blacks are not the only ones overdosing at alarming rates. Since 2019 Native Americans have had the highest overdose rates of any group. In 2020 that rate was more than 30 percent higher than for Whites.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose rate at 90 per 100,000 persons. D.C has the distinction of being next with 70.  The city saw an estimated 498 fatal overdoses over the 12-month period of April 2020-April 2021 according to the CDC report.  This figure is higher than the city’s record number of homicides and the number of drug deaths in 13 states.

This troubling news was further complicated with the recent discovery of new opioids in the D.C. drug supply, more powerful and dangerous than fentanyl.

These new drugs, discovered on used syringes courtesy of the city’s needle exchange program, were examined by scientists at the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences in September and October.

“The DFS Public Health Lab discovered two nitazenes—synthetic opioids—in used syringes submitted to the lab as part of the District’s Needle Exchange Program. Studies show nitazenes are more potent than fentanyl, which means additional doses of Naloxone may be needed to treat overdoses,” a spokesperson for D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences said in a statement to The Hill.

Public health officials caution that fentanyl is often found in other drugs such as cocaine, that also often lead to fatal overdoses without the drug users even knowing what they are consuming.

Dempsey Hinton is the owner of Maphantom, Inc., a Residential Mental Health and Substance Abuse program with six group homes in the poorest parts of the city. His clients are referred from jail and St. Elizabeth’s, a  psychiatric hospital.  Mr. Hinton sees the dangers of the rise in opioids in the community leading to the increase in overdoses.

“I’m seeing my clients going out into the community and buying drugs like K2 (human-made mind-altering chemicals are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material to be smoked or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices). This drug makes them take their clothes off, walk in the middle of the street, get hit by a car, just lose their mind,” he told The Final Call.

While drug abuse in the Black community has been historically treated with punishment, that’s not the best way to treat the problem.

“Systemic racism fuels the opioid crisis, just as it contributes mightily to other areas of health disparities and inequity, especially for Black people, said  Dr. Volkow. “We must ensure that evidence-based interventions, tailored to communities, are able to cut through the economic and social factors that drive disparities in substance use and addiction, to reach all people in need of services. For instance, the distribution of naloxone and linkage to care, can work to decrease opioid overdoses and to prevent and treat opioid use disorders.”