Black Americans Are Dying From Opioid Overdoses More Than Ever

For years, the opioid epidemic seemed to be a white person’s problem. Though all races have been impacted by opiate use, white users were always more likely to die from overdose deaths. However, in recent years, Black people have begun to outpace white people. A new study finds that for the first time ever, more Black Americans than ever are dying of opioid overdoses. 

Researchers at Penn State University published their study in The American Journal on Addiction, and the findings don’t necessarily point to an increase in use of opioid drugs (like heroin and prescription pills) by Black people. Instead, it points to increases in deaths related to fentanyl in cocaine-based drugs becoming a problem.

Increase in fentanyl-laced drugs

Study co-author Abenaa Jones states that cocaine use overall hasn’t increased, but the supply itself is becoming more deadly. Cocaine use first became an issue in the Black community with the 80’s crack epidemic. Jones, who is an assistant professor of Health and Human Development at Penn State, explains that we’re witnessing a “collision of two separate epidemics.”

She says, “In the 1980s and 90s, cocaine use was prevalent among Black individuals who lived in urban areas. They may have been using cocaine for years, but now it is leading to overdoses because of the presence of fentanyl.”

Changing demographic locations of Black male overdoses

The changing overdose demographics show that Black men, especially in cities across the Midwest and Northeast—are more likely to die of drug overdoses white men. However, younger Black people are still less likely than younger white people to die of a drug overdose. 

A similar study published in 2023 found that in 2020, the highest rate of overdoses in Black males occurred in Washington DC. The city saw a record of 134 deaths per 100,000 due to fentanyl, making them 9.4 times more likely to die of an overdose than white males.  

According to Shashim Waghmare, a graduate student in health policy administration and a study coauthor, “This shift highlights the exacerbating impact of COVID-19 on substance use disparities, underlining an urgent need for tailored, culturally competent interventions and resources.” 

How to prevent opioid overdoses

These interventions can include carrying naloxone, which typically isn’t needed to treat cocaine use. Users and members of the community need to be made aware of the possibility of fentanyl, and with that knowledge, the use of and access to fentanyl testing strips can help users determine if they’ve received a tainted batch. Something as basic as distributing testing strips can save lives, according to study authors.

Since 2015, deaths related to opioids have doubled. In 2021, over 106,000 people overdosed. On top of cutting cocaine with fentanyl,  the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated overdoses across all demographics. Most of those deaths can be attributed to the use of synthetic opioid use, and since 2016, there’s been a sharp increase in deaths related to using cocaine and meth. 

Adding synthetic fentanyl to drugs like cocaine is a means of increasing profits and cutting production costs. It is cheaper than supplying pure versions of the drugs, and with it being highly addictive, it is sought after by distributors. However, people are at an increased risk of death, because it is 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. With most people not having a tolerance for fentanyl, even one use can be fatal.

Despite the increase in opioid-related deaths, Black people are still less likely than white people to knowingly misuse opioids in any form.

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