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Opioid Drugs

Fentanyl is Changing the Face of the Opioid Epidemic

— November 22, 2019

African American addiction overdose rates are on the rise.

As opioid use continues to consume the United States, the landscape is changing.  In large urban areas “black adults saw the largest increases in rates of drug overdose deaths involving opioids and synthetic opioids, with rates increasing 103% and 361% respectively,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  A huge perpetrator of the crisis is the especially powerful opioid fentanyl.  As agencies crack down on drug distribution, Ohio’s attorney general even went to far as to say, “Fentanyl seized in drug bust equates to chemical warfare and a weapon of mass destruction.”

The CDC previously reported in that “synthetic opioids accounted for nearly 60% of opioid-involved overdose deaths in the United States in 2017.”  There has also been “an increase in deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, MDMA and methylphenidate.”

Whereas the black community normally has a low rate of overdose deaths, manufactured fentanyl is being used in combination with other drugs, increasing ingestion of the opioid oftentimes unbeknownst to users.  Researchers have found fentanyl in fake prescription drugs, cocaine, and meth, and say this is changing things.  When it first arrived on U.S. streets, fentanyl was thought to only be mixed with heroin, but now it appears to be part of other drug concoctions.

Fentanyl is Changing the Face of the Opioid Epidemic
Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

The CDC said it’s pertinent to increase awareness of this issue in order to increase prevention.  It reported, “African Americans ages 45-54, and 55-64 in large central metro areas, saw notable increases in deaths.  For African Americans between the ages of 45 and 54, the death rates from overdoses more than doubled, going from 19.3 to 41.9 per 100,000 people between 2015 and 2017.  For African Americans between the ages of 55 and 64, the death rates went from 21.8 to 42.7 per 100,000 people in large central metropolitan areas…Trends like this suggest that culturally competent interventions” like community-specific education that would emphasize how dangerous synthetic opioids are, are needed.”

“This epidemic over the last few years has been framed by many as largely a white epidemic, but we know now that’s not true,” said Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.  Yet, whites are still more likely to abuse opioids. Despite these findings, Lagisetty added, “White populations are almost 35 times as likely to have a buprenorphine-related visit than black Americans.”

Buprenorphine is so addicting, in fact, that physicians and nurse practitioners can demand cash payments because there’s a shortage of clinicians who can prescribe buprenorphine, according to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University. Only about 5% of physicians have taken the special training required to prescribe buprenorphine.

“The few that are doing it are really able to name their price, and that’s what we’re seeing here and that’s the reason why individuals with more resources – who are more likely to be white – are more likely to access treatment with buprenorphine,” Kolodny said.

Nevertheless, Michael Botticelli, director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center and the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy agrees with the CDC, adding that the new data “really demands for us to be looking at equitable treatment for addiction for African Americans as we do for white Americans.”


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