In February, the New York Times reported on a young woman’s tragic drug overdose in Heroin’s Small-Town Toll, and a Mother’s Grief. Reading the article made me feel more angry than relieved that the heroin/opiate overdose issue is finally coming to light. Mainly, the article’s focus on how the faces of heroin overdose “are getting younger and whiter” speaks directly to my concern: do we care now because the color of those dying from overdose is changing? Drug addiction and related deaths are needless and heartbreaking in any community, yet these issues have faced communities of color — especially poor communities of color — for decades, but one has to wonder if any of those deaths received as much front page coverage as we’ve seen in the past few months.
The charts in the article are illustrative of this: Hispanics in 1999 died of heroin overdose at almost the same rates as whites did in 2010. Moreover, if you were to add the number of deaths among Hispanics and African-Americans each year between 1999 through 2010, they are startlingly similar to the 2010 death rates of whites. Why is it that we call it an epidemic only now, when the number of deaths has been this high all along?
This is not to discount the work of public health advocates who have worked tirelessly for years to slow the upward trend of opioid overdose deaths; the existence of laws and policies to expand the use of naloxone (an overdose drug therapy) and “Good Samaritan laws” are evidence of this. These same advocates are also working to eliminate the health disparities — which include conditions that lead to drug abuse and overdose — that exist for communities of color.
But, in order to really address health disparities, we have to address our society’s structural and institutional racism. A systematic law and policy approach that puts race back into the conversation is imperative. As with trickledown economics, hoping that laws will eventually impact marginalized communities isn’t enough. Focused attention must be placed on vulnerable communities.
For example, the Minnesota Department of Health in January announced that it would “lead with race” as a strategy to address health inequities. The health department plans to examine its decisions and policies through this lens moving forward. This is a start in the right direction, though we have known about these disparities for many years now.
The young woman profiled in the article, Alysa Ivy, represents the tragedy of drug addiction — her life ended abruptly without realizing her full potential, and we grieve her passing. But so too ended thousands of lives of people of color, beginning long before we knew the names of the most recent victims of our nation’s “epidemic.” It’s long past time for us to honestly face another epidemic: our countries’ systemic ignorance about the needs of poor communities and communities of color.
This post was developed by Cristina Meneses, senior staff attorney at the Network for Public Health Law — Eastern Region, at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. This blog post does not represent the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.