Episode 3: Racism and the American Opioid Epidemic

Thursday, September 30, 2021


Countering the Opioid Crisis: Time for Action Podcast

Click here if you are interested in listening to the full episode hosted by the National Academy of Medicine. 

In this episode, Ruth Katz hosts Dr. Helena Hansen, professor, and chair of the research theme in translational social science and health equity at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Joy Rucker, the former executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, to discuss the role of racism in America’s opioid epidemic.

Below are some of the highlights that I took away from the podcast:

  • Black and brown communities face higher overdose rates, fatality rates, often times receive inferior care, and have less options to find a physician of their own race to treat them compared to white peers.
  • In 2020, the United States experienced a 30% increase in drug related deaths from 2019. 
  • Drug policies and interventions are often set up to treat some people with substance use disorder as having a treatable disease and some people treated by going through the criminal justice system. These policies label people who use the most dangerous drugs and who are the most dangerous drug users and these lines often coincide with the race of the person using drugs.
  • An example of a racial system in biomedical research is the Tuskegee study. In this study black males were left untreated with syphilis to see the effects of the disease. Medicine was denied to participants even after penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis. What makes this systemic racism or structural racism is that the intent was to have black males serve as the experiment for white consumers.
  • In the past decade we have seen a lot of funding, resources, and man power devoted to ending the opioid epidemic. The face of the opioid epidemic has become young white people and it is labeled as a crisis. Where were these resources when the crack epidemic was occurring that was mainly affecting people of color and low income persons?
  • In the 60s-80s the heroin crisis was labeled as a crime epidemic, not a public health epidemic. What makes the opioid overdose epidemic different from the heroin epidemic? Dr. Hansen believes that it is because of who is using the drugs. The heroin problem mainly affected by people of color and the opioid overdose is affecting all races including white people.
  • Right now medical providers only get about 8-10 hours of addiction education during their years in medical school. Joy believes that this should be expanded on for every medical provider since they serve as the gatekeepers for their patients.
  • If addiction is brain disease they why is treatment for the disease so different than any other disease? Discussion occurred about medication assisted treatment and how difficult it is to receive treatment for substance use disorder. An example was if you are using methadone you need to be at the clinic by a certain time, usually very early in the morning, and you only have a certain dosing time frame to meet and you must do this everyday. (note: there are other medication options for treatment)
  • The podcast host asked the guests that if Xavier Bacerra, US Secretary of Health and Human Services was listening to this podcast, what is the one thing you would advise him to do right now to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic especially in regard to minority communities that have been hit so hard?
    • Joy: Support the entire continuum of harm reduction and have it based in communities where people can access them.
    • Dr. Hansen: Look at the Ryan White Care Act and the aids epidemic, learn from that, and apply that to the overdose crisis. Funding housing as a part of treatment and enhancing peer support as a part of treatment. Building social support as a line item in funding options.


Annette Perrino
Program Manager
Macomb Partnership for Overdose Prevention