The untold story of heroin in the black community

September 29, 2017

Those living in the Tristate area especially know that in recent years, heroin usage rates have risen exponentially. The drug problem has been described by many as a crisis and thus, has come to the forefront as a national emergency. For the most part, treatment and intervention efforts seem to be particularly centered around predominantly white communities. But there’s an untold story of heroin addiction in black neighborhoods, says President of the Cincinnati Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program (UMADAOP), Kamaria Tyehimba.

Many have noted the discrepancies— both past and present—between narratives of the crack cocaine epidemic and the heroin problem. “People of all races admit that we responded to the crack epidemic very differently than we’re responding to the opiate epidemic,” Tyehimba says. “They took people who were suffering from a crack addiction and they put them in jail. But they’ve put heroin addicts in treatment or sent them home.” While people of all races use both drugs, crack has historically been associated with African-Americans and heroin with white Americans.

“It is not just a white addiction or disease,” Tyehimba says. That myth has led to African-Americans missing signs that their friends and loved ones may have a problem with the drug. Consequently, heroin related deaths amongst blacks are rarely concluded as such and thus, are not reflected in the statistics.

When it comes to referrals to drug treatment centers, UMADAOP usually falls to the bottom of the list—if it even makes the cut. This is a consequence of a lack of emphasis on drug addiction in the urban core. “Are physicians even asking questions or doing screenings? Tyehimba wonders. “And if they are, what do they do with that information? I’m not sure they’re looking at the number of pills being prescribed in the same deliberate way as they do with other populations of people.”

And while the current narrative points to prescription opiates as the gateway to modern heroin use, that doesn’t account for the sector of old-time users who have relied on the drug for decades. Heroin became a huge problem within black neighborhoods during the 1960’s, and even then, the treatment centers accessible to urban communities reserved help for those actively undergoing overdoses or withdrawals, Tyehimba says. She sees patients who have been using opiates for more than 40 years, and offers out-patient services.

Though there is a wide gap between drug intervention in urban and rural communities, the UMADAOP CEO says she does see major efforts to regulate the use of opiates amongst communities of color by Hamilton County officials. But ultimately, it will take more than just funding boards and the commissioners office, Tyehimba says. “It takes the EMTs, doctors, and others in the community as well.”

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