Black Americans Are In The Midst Of A Cocaine Overdose Crisis

By Kelly Burch 12/14/17

Overdoses rates are highest among black Americans ages 55 to 59 and cocaine laced with fentanyl may play a role in the alarming spike.

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Media and political attention has put the opioid overdose crisis in the national dialogue more than ever before, but that conversation is leaving out a critical fact: that cocaine overdoses among black Americans are happening at a similar rate as opioid overdoses among whites. 

Still, opioid-related deaths, particularly among middle-aged white Americans, receive the vast majority of attention, while rising cocaine deaths among black and Hispanic Americans are overlooked. 

"These increases have received less attention," said Meredith Shiels, co-author of a study published last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found that drug overdose rates among the two groups are similar. 

"In the most recent years studied, 2012 to 2015, cocaine overdose deaths were almost as common in black men as prescription opioid deaths in white men and slightly more common in black women than deaths from heroin overdose in white women," Shiels said, according to CNN.

Overall, drug overdose rates were highest among non-Hispanic whites. Between 2000 and 2015, overdose death rates rose among black individuals from 6.1 per 100,000 people to 9 per 100,000 people; among Hispanic individuals from 4.2 per 100,000 to 6 per 100,000; and among white individuals from 5.6 per 100,000 to 15.5 per 100,000.

Those numbers “underscore that we not only have an opioid crisis but a more general drug abuse crisis,” said David Thomas, a co-author of the study and a health scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Brandon D.L. Marshall, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, who was not involved with the study, told CNN that there needs to be an understanding that the drug crisis is affecting all communities. 

"While overdose death rates are highest among non-Hispanic whites, the increase among African-Americans and Hispanics is alarming and deserves greater public health attention," he said.

Marshall pointed out that overdose rates among whites are highest for people ages 30 to 34, while overdoses among blacks are most common for people ages 55 to 59. He called for more research to examine this difference in overdose deaths by age and race. 

Cocaine laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl could be contributing to overdose deaths. According to The Root, Dr. Thomas Gilson, a medical examiner in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has testified before the U.S. Senate that drug dealers are mixing fentanyl into cocaine to get more black Americans addicted to opioids, increasing the likelihood of overdose. 

“Cocaine had been the only drug that victims were predominately African American,” Dr. Gilson told senators. “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.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.