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Changing Face Of Fentanyl: The Silent Killer Moving In Tampa's Black Community

Overdosed

According to LIVE Tampa Bay, the opioid overdose death rate for Black Floridians increased 330 percent from 2014 to 2018.

TAMPA, Fla. — When it comes to drug use, addiction does not discriminate. However, the factors leading to it can.

New research shows deadly opioid overdoses are rising fastest among Black Americans, and the pandemic made it worse. According to LIVE Tampa Bay, the opioid overdose death rate for Black Floridians increased 330 percent from 2014 to 2018.

Experts say fentanyl is the drug being found in more and more opioid overdose deaths.

“The fentanyl is so powerful that it’s used to cut and mix with other drugs to maintain a certain potency,” said Dr. Micah Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health Law & Policy at the University of South Florida.

Johnson studies drug abuse and founded the Study of Teen Opioid Misuse and Prevention at the University of Florida.

He is also leading a new research laboratory at USF to study opioid abuse. Through a federal $1.5 million grant, he says the lab will hold the largest cluster of African American researchers in the country studying the impact fentanyl and other drugs have on marginalized populations.

“We have the largest and most effective research education program, specifically looking at addiction in the nation, right here in Tampa at USF.”

Fentanyl, though, presents unique challenges.

“…We don’t quite understand the impact it’s having because we haven’t been able to do the research fast enough to keep up with the epidemic,” he said.

There’s not a lot of data from the state either. The Florida Department of Health has detailed drug reports, but there aren’t racial breakdowns for fentanyl.

Dr. Johnson says fentanyl is especially harmful in low-income Black communities that formed as the result of racial segregation. He says the drugs are sometimes a way of dealing with life’s pressures when they don’t have other resources.

“Folks who are hopeless are four to eight times more likely to misuse opioids,” said Johnson. “We have to address the social stressors that are causing people to need to cope.”

Rev. J.C. Pritchett of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance says the pandemic exacerbated some of these stressors and limited people’s access to healthy means of managing pressure, trauma, and anxiety.

“How this crisis affects our community is different than another community,” he said. “And so, several things happened with the global pandemic: we weren’t gathering on a regular basis as we do in our tradition at worship on Sundays. That’s a support system several times a week that literally was removed from our community.”

Pritchett says drugs have been a taboo topic in churches for too long, and it’s time for faith leaders to step up on the issue.

“I think it’s very easy, to be honest with you, to focus on communions, weddings, Sunday School…and not deal with…the tragedy of homes being broken because of drugs,” said Pritchett. “We can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist because it does.”

Fentanyl isn’t the first opioid crisis to hit the Black community. Johnson says the heroin epidemic of the 70s and 80s should be a lesson for today. “The face of the opioid crisis at that time was poor black people. Therefore, it was met with a lot of insensitivity, no resources, no humanization, and locking people up and treating them like animals,” he said.

It had a devastating impact on Black families—a disparity Johnson hopes to address through his research and advocacy.

Emerald Morrow is an investigative reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Instagram and Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10tampabay.com.

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