Cleveland Officials Worried About Sharp Rise in African-American Opioid Overdoses

Downtown Cleveland is seen from the Edgewater neighborhood as the sun sets in 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Downtown Cleveland is seen from the Edgewater neighborhood as the sun sets in 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The nation’s opioid addiction crisis has largely been considered a problem for white people, many of whom have fallen prey to abuse of prescription painkillers and have migrated to fentanyl and heroin, often in rural areas such as Appalachia.

But in the communities around this Ohio metropolis on the southern shore of Lake Erie, there is evidence of a disturbing turn: Last year, 58 of Cuyahoga County’s 399 fatal fentanyl overdoses were African Americans, killed by a synthetic opioid that is now responsible for almost two-thirds of the county’s overall deadly overdoses. Officials believe the introduction of fentanyl and carfentanil — an extremely powerful animal tranquilizer — into the cocaine sold in the region is responsible for the rise in black overdose deaths.

That black overdoses in the Cleveland area are surging is a shocking outlier in the epidemic, alarming county medical examiner Thomas Gilson so much that he highlighted the deaths when testifying at a Senate hearing in May.

“The covert introduction of fentanyl into the cocaine supply has caused a rapid rise in fatalities, and in 2017, the rate of African American fentanyl related deaths has doubled from 2016,” Gilson said.

Overdose deaths have been on the rise overall in Cuyahoga, and they are now seeing a major surge again, with a total of 43 fatal overdoses since Memorial Day, the medical examiner’s office said Wednesday. But the rise in fentanyl-related deaths among black drug users has been particularly stunning, with a nearly 900 percent increase from 2014 to 2016.

Six African Americans in Cuyahoga died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2014, and the toll was 24 in 2015. In 2016, 58 black people died from fentanyl-related drug use, and through the first half of this year, 50 have died. Gilson expects to see more than 125 victims by year’s end.

Cuyahoga County’s 52 municipalities include Cleveland and a host of suburbs, with a population of more than 1.2 million. The Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city’s center, has defined the racial composition of the county: blacks live to the east while whites went west. The new drug trend is hitting African American neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east side, as well as in relatively middle-class municipalities.

U.S. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D), who represents parts of Cleveland and its east-side suburbs, recently reintroduced a bill in Washington that aims to break the addiction she has seen ravaging her district, with a focus on funding for treatment. As she sees hundreds of her constituents overdosing, she believes talking about the problem isn’t enough.

“We have to find a way to get some control over the sales of fentanyl” and “find out where it’s coming from,” Fudge said in an interview, noting that many people — especially in black communities — don’t know what the drug is or that it could be laced into other drugs. “We have to start to educate people . . . who are less educated about the drugs, who have less resources and who tend to be treated at a lower rate.”

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SOURCE: Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs 
The Washington Post