With opioid epidemic alive and well, many go without treatment
With less than half of U.S. adults with a substance use disorder having received treatment, Baltimore and other cities throughout the U.S. struggle to help those in the throes of addiction.
As I walked through the Penn North neighborhood in West Baltimore this past week, the impact of the ongoing opioid epidemic proved more severe than ever.
Many struggling addicts, some barely conscious and at times unable to stand without clinging to a pole, could be seen on the streets as dealers yelled at passersby to sell the drugs in their inventory.
It was difficult as I traversed the neighborhood, which serves as an open-air drug market. And as a recovering addict myself, I wish I could’ve done something to help.
However, in the grand scheme of things, my hands were largely tied.
As these scenes play out, opioid-related overdose deaths are reaching record levels nationwide, and new polling shows the number of those receiving treatment for their addictions fails to keep pace.
Less than half of those with a substance use disorder have received treatment, even though 29% of U.S. adults say they are battling with opioid addiction or know someone who is, according to a recent poll of more than 1,300 adults by KFF, a health policy research group.
That could be an undercount, too, as the poll relies on self-reporting — and many are hesitant to be transparent about their drug history.
Meanwhile, Baltimore and cities throughout the U.S. struggle to help those in the throes of addiction, a problem that proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“With U.S. overdose deaths hitting a new high in 2022, a majority of adults say they have felt the impact of the substance use crisis facing the country,” the KFF poll states. “Two-thirds say either they or a family member have been addicted to alcohol or drugs, experienced homelessness due to addiction, or experienced a drug overdose leading to an emergency room visit, hospitalization, or death.”
Fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, has particularly gripped addicts nationwide. Other drugs, such as carfentanil, are even more deadly.
In addition, the drug, often known as “Boy,” is increasingly being laced with xylazine, or “Tranq,” a sedative that can cause abscesses and significantly complicate the treatment of overdoses.
I experienced Baltimore’s fentanyl dillema firsthand when I recently spent a week in the Penn North neighborhood.
Along Pennsylvania Avenue, individuals nodding off on the sidewalk while dealers incessantly pitched the drug to passersby could be seen for blocks.
Meanwhile, Narcotics Anonymous meetings were being held at local churches along the same street — often with dealers and those struggling with addiction standing right outside.
The police, with hundreds of millions of dollars in their budget, were barely present. Those from the historically corrupt department that were in the neighborhood seemed to not have a care in the world for the ongoing activities.
It reminded me of a smaller version of Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, which is also plagued by rampant drug use.
For those struggling with addiction in Baltimore, resources can be found on the city website.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also provides resources here, which include aid with locating addiction treatment centers.
These scenes served as a microcosm of a nationwide drug problem as new statistics show an estimated 110,000 people died last year of drug overdoses in the U.S., the New York Times has reported.
Synthetic opioids could be attributed to about 75,000 overdose deaths last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Analyzing data local to Baltimore is complicated. Although the city maintains a data portal tracking overdoses, much of it is outdated.
For example, Baltimore comprises about 10% of Maryland's population, yet more than 35% of statewide overdose deaths occurred in Baltimore in 2020, according to the Baltimore City Health Department’s most recent data.
As for demographics, adults between 45 and 65 years old were most likely to die of an overdose, according to the health department. In addition, most of those who overdosed were male.
Since 2018, Black residents have accounted for the majority of overdose deaths.
The most recent data relates to nonfatal overdoses. There have been nearly 1,400 suspected nonfatal overdoses between January and June of 2023, according to the health department.
There were more than 2,700 that took place in 2022.
In May, when the data was first released, Mayor Brandon Scott outlined the city’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.
“We’re doing everything we can to combat the opioid crisis,” Scott said. “We’re aggressively exploring supervised use sites to reduce fatal overdoses and increase access to drug treatment; we’ve filed a lawsuit on behalf of City residents against irresponsible drug-makers to hold them accountable for the damage they’ve done to our community; and we’re using data in collaborative ways to spur innovation in our battle against the drugs that are claiming the lives of so many of our friends, family members, and neighbors.”
The city over the years has also created programs and initiatives to help combat the opioid epidemic, such as its Opioid Intervention Team, although overdose deaths remain commonplace.
This only provides further evidence that a plethora of problems remain in addressing opioid use in the city.
For one, considering it’s recently been shown that many addicts have not received treatment, one factor that comes to mind is that many individuals do not want, or are not yet ready, to get help.
Addiction is a complex disease. It takes courage and willpower — in addition to the acknowledgment of the severity of one’s addiction — to seek help.
That being said, even if someone wants help, another barrier is that treatment also requires health insurance.
Sure, those who have Medicaid may have access to some programs, but one’s quality of life while in a facility is also conducive to a more successful recovery.
It doesn’t help that many of the higher-quality treatment centers don’t accept policies such as Medicaid, meaning that those living in poverty are inherently disadvantaged.
As I experienced in West Baltimore, drug addiction is alive and well in the city. That’s true for every zip code in the country, too.
It goes without saying, then, that the city’s inadequate policies paired with the prayers rejoiced at Narcotics Anonymous meetings won’t save these people.
What would do much more to aid struggling addicts, however, are ramped-up investments in access to quality health care, treatment programs and social welfare programs.
Across the nation, every citizen should demand of public officials these investments, even if opioid addiction hasn’t impacted them personally. That includes here in Baltimore.
If local politicians choose to balk, maybe they should have a reality check come the next election cycle.