The Opioid Crisis Is Surging In Black, Urban Communities Opioid overdose deaths among middle-aged black men have increased 245 percent in the past three years in Washington, D.C.

The Opioid Crisis Is Surging In Black, Urban Communities

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The opioid crisis began in rural America. And in the beginning most of those who were overdosing were white. Since, the crisis has spread to urban areas and it's now affecting African-American communities in cities across the country including Washington, D.C. Marisa Peñaloza reports.

MARISA PEÑALOZA, BYLINE: About a dozen patients sit in the lobby of the Medical Home Development Group, a private clinic specializing in drug addiction. It's on a busy street in Northeast Washington. And even on the second floor, you hear ambulances go by. Dr. Edwin Chapman says that often, they stop right outside.

EDWIN CHAPMAN: We've had overdoses right under the building, right next door to the building.

MELISSA CLARKE: It's an epidemic. We feel like we have a fire underneath us because African-Americans are dying every day.

PEÑALOZA: Dr. Melissa Clarke works with Dr. Chapman. According to the office of the Medical Examiner in Washington, D.C., opioid deaths among black men between the ages of 40 and 69 have soared in recent years. And one of the reasons is fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is often laced in heroin and other drugs, says Dr. Clarke.

CLARKE: People who've even been lifelong heroin users are dying because they don't understand how to titrate those doses.

PEÑALOZA: That's part of the challenge, she says. And though it's always been hard for addicts to know the strength of street drugs, fentanyl is even more dangerous.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning, how are you?

PEÑALOZA: It's a recent Saturday morning. A crowd of mostly health professionals and a handful of patients gather at Dr. Chapman's clinic to talk about this crisis. He introduces his guests to one another.

CHAPMAN: This is Dr. Vincent Jones (ph). This is Dr. Larry Daniel (ph).

PEÑALOZA: Dr. Chapman has been practicing medicine for close to 40 years in Washington. And for 12 years, he ran the methadone clinic at the D.C. General Hospital.

CHAPMAN: Those patients were very segregated from the rest of the community, and only their substance abuse was treated.

PEÑALOZA: That experience taught him many lessons, including the need to address his patients' overall health, not just their addiction, he says.

CHAPMAN: I'm always asked, why do you treat these folks? You know, aren't you afraid?

PEÑALOZA: He says he sees drug addiction like any other chronic disease and treats a full load of patients with suboxone, medication that keeps his patient's relentless cravings in check. Larry Bing is one of his patients.

LARRY BING: Good morning. I'm 64. I'm an addict in spite of being on suboxone and being in therapy. Every day ain't a good day for me.

PEÑALOZA: Mr. Bing is tall and handsome. He started using when he was 15. And he's tried to quit drugs several times before with methadone, a more conventional treatment offered by a D.C. government. But he relapsed four times. Bing and his wife, Evelyn, had been married for 22 years.

EVELYN BING: I don't think we as African-Americans are getting the best resources.

PEÑALOZA: As the opioid crisis spikes in D.C., she says many in her community are desperate for help.

BING: I would like to see more Dr. Chapmans, drugs off the street, crime stopped, more schools, more programs to educate on what drugs do to people.

CHAPMAN: It's going to be what we do at the grass-roots level, on the ground more so than what the federal government is doing. This is very urgent.

PEÑALOZA: He's passionate about his work. And at 71, Dr. Edwin Chapman isn't thinking about retirement. Not when my city is right in the middle of a raging epidemic, he says. Marisa Peñaloza, NPR News, Washington.

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