The CDC documented more than 56,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids in Baltimore, where Black communities which are underserved are hit the hardest by the drug epidemic. (Photo by Myriam Zilles on

By Fatiha Belfakir,
Special to the AFRO

As the country continues its fight on the drug overdose epidemic, the number of deaths soars in many cities across the nation, and Baltimore is no exception. Experts are suggesting pragmatic measures and urging policymakers to take actions to address the ongoing addiction and Fentanyl overdose crisis.

The epidemic hits hard cities like Baltimore, where Black communities are particularly underserved when it comes to addiction services. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 56,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids (other than methadone) occurred in the United States in 2020. The rate of deaths by overdose involving synthetic opioids was more than 18 times higher in 2020 than in 2013.

Dr. Christopher Welsh, an addiction psychiatrist at the University of Maryland told the AFRO-American Newspaper that even though everyone talks about the opioid epidemic starting in the late 90s with prescription opioids. This is not the case in places like Baltimore, which had significant heroin epidemics since the 1950s.

“There were years in the 1990s where Baltimore had the highest rates of heroin use of any city. 

But the recent wave for the last eight or nine years has been these newer synthetic opioids, prescription opioids have generally come down,” said Welsh.

Dr. Welsh explained that the issue now with opioids is that the vast majority of whatever people are using are illicitly manufactured. Thus, part of the problem is that it’s just becomes somewhere deadly because the drugs are so much more potent, people have no idea what they’re buying.

“The epidemic is now driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms. There are other illicitly manufactured very strong opioids, which the epidemic has kind of switched to,” said Welsh.

Attention to this epidemic has primarily focused on white suburban and rural communities. However, less attention was paid to the Black communities, which are similarly experiencing and dying from drug overdose.

“In the 60s, 70s, 80s, and in the 90s, in places like Baltimore, the epidemic was again largely in the Black community, but people weren’t paying attention to it then. The focus shifted in the 2000s when a lot of White middle class people were affected by it,” said Welsh.

Freda Norris, 66, a peer recovery specialist in the Emergency Dept., has been sober for 11 years. She used heroin and crack, cocaine, and methadone. Norris continues to enjoy her sober life. However, she believes that overcoming addiction is a lot more than giving up drugs.  

“Life is wonderful after addiction, but you have to want it and stick to it. Recovery isn’t easy on a day to day basis. If you really want to stop using drugs, find out what works for you and stick to it,” said Norris. “The government need to have more detox units and assistance with housing and jobs for recovering addicts,”

The best way to help end the epidemic in Baltimore City, experts are urging policymakers to address prescribing of opioids and to encourage people to get into drug treatment programs, which use medications and tend to have better success rate.

“Right now, there’s still an issue for people to prescribe Suboxone. A doctor or nurse practitioner has to get a special waiver, which a lot of people just don’t want to kind of jump through the hoops of doing that, so that makes it harder to get it,” said Welsh.

So far, Baltimore City failed to establish safe consumption facilities or overdose prevention like in the case of many European cities and even in cities like New York City, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia, which are planning on using such facilities.

“We’ve had attempts for the last five or six years in Maryland to get to get those places. This will definitely help people to have a safer place to use their drugs, and eventually lowers the chances of somebody overdosing,” said Welsh.

Another approach is similar to the one implemented in Vancouver, which is prescribing heroin or other opiates. This prescription is not to treat pain, but to rather treat addiction.

“ We have to make sure that patients have a supply of opiates that that we know where it’s coming from, unlike the supply that’s out on the street now where you just have no idea what’s in it,” said Welsh.

Dr. Paul Christo, Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the Afro Newspaper that unfortunately, the overdose deaths continued escalating in the United States and it is becoming a major threat to public health.

Dr. Christo believes in awareness and education as keys to fight this crisis and to understand that   those that are using and purchasing drugs illegally need to know that this is a very potent drug and could be laced with Fentanyl, if they are considering using it, they can buy fentanyl test strips.

“You can get those strips from public health departments and test the substance to determine if it has fentanyl or not, and if it is, then I would stay away from whatever they’re planning to use,” said Christo. “Another approach is the use of online treatment options including telemedicine, tele-mental health services, and the 988 number which is a mental health crisis number and was launched in July 2022. Its main focus is on mental health emergencies  staffed by counselors and social workers and they can have a mobile response team help out.”

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