Once perceived as a largely white rural problem, more African-Americans in Philadelphia are dying as a result of opioid-related overdoes than they are of homicides.
According to numbers compiled by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, 269 African-Americans overdosed in 2016 as part of a total of 907 opioid-related deaths. That same year, 235 African-Americans were victims of homicide in the city.
Through the first nine months of 2017 there were 248 African-American deaths due to opioid-related overdoses. Conversely, in all of 2017 there were 253 African-American homicides, according to the Philadelphia Police Department.
The Department of Public Health reported 956 opioid-related deaths through the first three quarters of 2017. However, projections by the agency are that there will be approximately 1,200 total overdose deaths. That projects to as many as 330 African-American deaths via overdose.
Last year the city recorded 313 homicides, the most since 331 were slain in 2012.
“A lot of people don’t know that,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard J. Ross said Friday during a Philadelphia Tribune Editorial Board meeting. “In this city, more people of color are dying from Opioids than they do of gunshots.”
Philadelphia, particularly North Philadelphia east of Broad Street, has become a hotspot for Opioids on the East Coast. Much of this is attributable, Ross said, to the focus that has come by way of media attention here such as an NBC Nightly News broadcast that highlighted librarians from the McPherson Square Park branch in Kensington administering the anti-overdose drug Narcan to an overdose victim.
This highlights the problem, Ross said.
“You would think that if we put a spotlight on an area where there have been ‘x’ number of overdoses that the average addicted person would stay away from that,” Ross said. “No, they flock to that – even if it’s killing people – because now they know where they can get the best drugs. It’s a weird dynamic but it’s real, and it lends itself to a major issue.”
Opioid deaths among African-Americans is not just a growing problem in Philadelphia; nationally it is on the rise as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate for all Americans from Opioids is up with Black Americans experiencing a 4 percent increase.
According to the 2017 report, the drug death rate is rising most steeply among Blacks, with those between the ages of 45 and 64 among the hardest hit.
Drug deaths among Blacks in Urban counties rose by 41 percent in 2016, far outpacing any other racial or ethnic group. In those same counties, the drug death rate among whites rose by 19 percent.
There are also indicators that African Americans here and in other urban areas are more frequently using fentanyl, a synthetic Opiod. In 2016, for instance, Cleveland, 58 of Cleveland’s 399 fatal fentanyl overdoses were African-Americans. Officials believe the drug was being covertly introduced to the African-American population there and elsewhere through cocaine.
Ross has continued to struggle with safe injection sites, or comprehensive user engagement sites, facilities that would allow people to use drugs and facilitate access to medical care and drug treatment. Once staunchly against it, the epidemic has him looking at it a little differently now.
“I will tell you when I don’t have the answer,” Ross said. “People are dying all over the place. And as a public safety official I do view that as part of my responsibility. I’m not saying that means I should be for safe injections sites. But I struggle with watching people drop and die with the frequency that they are.”