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How Fentanyl Hit Los Angeles’ Black Community By Becoming The Deadliest Drug In 2022

Fentanyl disproportionately affected Black communities in Los Angeles County.

Fentanyl has attacked the United States with a vengeance but for the African American community in Los Angeles, it took lives in 2022 at a higher rate than any other racial group.

The drug killed 1,910 LA County residents in 2022, beating out methamphetamine as the lead cause of overdoses. Data, according to L.A. County’s public health department, showed a rise of 13% in fentanyl deaths compared to 2021. That number went up 1,652% from the 109 deaths first recorded in 2016.

If that’s not alarming enough, health officials are paying close attention to how those numbers are tied in with racial disparities. Black residents made up 21% of deaths in 2022 but only 8% of Los Angeles County’s population.

Substance use researcher and assistant professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, David Goodman-Meza, thinks the numbers are surprising, especially from the Black community.

“It’s really striking what the rates are now for Black individuals dying of fentanyl,” Goodman-Meza said. “Unfortunately, because of systematic racism that Black individuals suffer in Los Angeles County, they tend to live in more marginalized communities. And they are less likely to access services.”

Fentanyl deaths were more prominent in white residents when it first arrived at alarming levels in 2016. Seven years later, people of color are dying at increasing rates. In 2019, Black and white residents tied at dying from fentanyl overdoses at a rate of 7.2 people per 100,000 residents. By 2022, the deadly drug hit Black communities the hardest, with 49.5 deaths per 100,000 residents—about twice as many as white fatalities.

Dr. Gary Tsai, director of substance use prevention and control at the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said fentanyl was first typically used as an alternative to prescription opioids, which are popularly used by white residents.

Now, fentanyl is easy to find and added to any other street drug, which, according to Chelsea Shover, health services researcher and assistant professor-in-residence at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, means any demographic that is prone to using illicit drugs also has a high risk of fentanyl overdoses.

“Fentanyl death rates among African Americans rising in L.A. is in line with what we see in the national stats, and in terms of all the different overlapping public health risk factors that people of color face,” Shover said. “People experiencing homelessness are quite overrepresented among drug overdoses generally and African Americans are absolutely overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness.”

Fentanyl is taking over other cities and states. In Michigan, fentanyl overdoses have doubled in the past five years, going from 23.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 2017 to 47.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2021. In 2021, Louisiana recorded close to 2,463 overdose deaths largely blamed on the drug, equaling 95% of all overdose deaths.

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