Editorial: A Drug Epidemic in Black, White and Purple

Image: Prince performs at his final concert at the Fox Theater in Atlanta
Prince performs at his final concert at the Fox Theater in Atlanta on April 14, 2016.Amiee Stubbs

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By Andrea King Collier
A mural featuring an image of Prince that was created by Chris Brown as a tribute to his influences is placed in the lobby of Grammy museum on April 21, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. Prince, who was 57, died at his estate in Minneapolis, Minnesota.Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

We are all still reeling from the sudden death of music icon Prince on April 21. And once the initial impact of his loss settled in, the inevitable happened. Shade, speculation and revelations of his alleged addiction to opiates and pain medications spread like wildfire.

Today, NBC News reports that Minnesota Medical Examiners confirmed Prince died from an overdose of the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

There is a lot of talk these days about the impact and victims of substance abuse — specifically, pain medications and other opioids, as well as heroin. Today, the conversations are very compassionate and enlightened because the face of addiction is changing.

“We need to see the Prince in all of us. We need to see the vulnerability. We’re all vulnerable here,” Dr. David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told the L.A. Times. “It’s a wake-up call for how we view these drugs.”

The spin is different. Drug use has become a very mainstream problem. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, more people die from drug overdoses than car accidents each year. In fact, according to the DEA, the use of such drugs as heroin, oxycodone and hydrocodone are now the leading causes of unintentional death in this country. On paper it looks new, but it has always been an epidemic in the black community. Most of us know someone who has battled an addiction, and many of us have lost a friend or family member.

But white America just got the memo.

In secret, people have always had addictions to pain medications or have self-medicated to deal with pain or mental health issues. Yet, our society never has asked black substance users if they were in pain or if they were victims. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person dies every 19 minutes — and 78 Americans die every single day — due to substance abuse. Sadly, Prince is one of them.

Why is it a big deal now? This new epidemic is largely populated by white men and suburban kids. Heroin-related deaths tripled from 2010 to 2014.

David French’s article in the National Review, Working-Class-White Deaths are a Cultural Problem, attributes the rise to the economic decline of the white middle class and a broken society. The message sent to black America is that we have a broken moral compass. In other words, they – white folks – are victims, but we are the deviants who make bad choices.

There is no good news in the rising rates of substance abuse, except that maybe it will be seen as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. It will be interesting to see if it will be treated as such for blacks.

We don’t yet know full details of the results of Prince’s autopsy. But we do know that he, like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, were great talents who are gone too soon. It is sad to think about all the young, gifted and black brothers and sisters that we lost along the way because they medicated their physical and emotional pain. What could have been possible for all or any of those struggling souls if they had been able to rise above the stigma and be able to access resources and support?

If we are going to have an authentic conversation about what opiate and heroin abuse are doing to this country, we must include victims within the black community.

There will be a sea change in the way people see drug abuse. It will move from a criminal justice issue to a public safety issue that will help to protect and support individuals and families, address the high rates of substance abuse and deaths. For us, there have only been policies that produced higher rates of arrest and incarceration.

This summer, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., will go on a road trip to talk about the opiate abuse epidemic, and he will probably talk about Prince. He is working to release the first ever surgeon general’s report on addiction. “We have to stop treating addiction as a moral failing,” Surgeon General Murthy says. He is calling for prevention, treatment and recovery. He says he wants to change the conversation and change the face of addiction. But where will it leave people of color, who have struggled for years? Will whites get treatment and blacks still get jail?

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If we are going to have an authentic conversation about what opiate and heroin abuse are doing to this country, we must include victims within the black community.

It is good that we are finally pulling the curtain back on substance abuse. But while we are creating acceptable poster children in white America and creating workable safety nets for prevention and treatment, we must insist that empathy, support and treatment be extended to everybody, not just Prince.

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