ST. LOUIS – At an annual New Year’s Eve vigil, police Chief John Hayden revealed that while there were an alarming 194 homicides last year, 108 more people than that died from drug overdoses in the city of St. Louis.
The figure of 302 overdose deaths is already alarming, but police noted that the final number for last year hadn’t yet come in. The final tally won’t be available until March or April, because of the length of time it takes to confirm the deaths by toxicology tests.
Among the Missouri Department of Heath and Senior Services’ tallies of overdose deaths in 2017 were 721 whites and 220 blacks. The department notes that while the highest number of drug overdose deaths occurred among white males, when adjusted by population black males were twice as likely (30.5 percent) to die from an overdose than their white counterpoints (14.2 percent).
To track the local numbers, the SLMPD works with the Medical Examiner’s Office, city and state health departments and the Fire Department.
The following ZIP coded neighborhoods have the highest reported overdose death totals at this time for 2019:
- 63111 (Mount Pleasant), 37
- 63116 (Tower Grove South), 26
- 63118 (Benton Park West), 26
- 63112 (Hamilton Heights), 26
These numbers provided by the SLMPD also included deaths that are expected to be drug-related but have not been confirmed by toxicology.
Roughly 85 to 90 percent of those drug-related overdose deaths are attributed to fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine. However, it is 50 to 100 times more potent. While it is a prescription drug, it is also made and used illegally.
Drugabuse.gov describes opioids as a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some are made from the plant directly, and others, such as fentanyl, are made by scientists in labs.
When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl can be administered as a shot, a patch applied to skin, or as lozenges sucked like cough drops.
The synthetic form of fentanyl, which is associated with the spike in overdoses, is sold illegally as a powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye droppers and nasal sprays, or made into pill form that looks like other prescription opioids.
On the streets, fentanyl is also being added to not only heroin, but drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.
“It’s less likely for someone to get pure heroin off the streets – it’s likely a mixture,” said Dr. Kanika Turner, a family practice physician who takes a focused approach to healing people addicted to heroin. “Someone who really wants to buy cocaine might be thinking they’re getting cocaine, but yet there’s fentanyl in it.”
“Fentanyl is so much more potent and powerful compared to heroin. So it increases risk for overdose,” she said.
Because it takes less fentanyl to get a high, it is considered to be cheaper, making it even deadlier. Oftentimes, users of illicit drugs don’t know that their drug of choice is laced with the life-threatening fentanyl.
According to Turner, when drugs are shipped to the U.S. from places such as China, the fentanyl is already mixed in with the other drugs.
Darren Wells, a former user, who lost friends to drug overdoses last year, knows all too well about the danger. “It’s some wicked stuff that they have going on with that fentanyl – that’s why so many people are OD’ing,” he said.
“It’s always been like that in the black community. Drugs were put in our community to keep us down, and they lock us up for it instead of helping us,” Wells said. He believes that rehabilitation should be offered instead of prison.
“It’s different,” agrees Deneen Busby, spokesperson for CareSTL, which has positioned itself on the front line of healing blacks from the effects of opioid and heroin use.
“There’s such a divide between how drug addiction is dealt with in the black community and the white community. It’s criminalized in our community,” Busby said.
Growing numbers of overdoses in recent years have caused federal and state governments to fund health care programs against abuse of opioids. In 2016, CareSTL applied for – and received – a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. Monies from the grant go toward Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) of opioid addiction.
The program requires that those who administer MAT receive extensive training. CareSTL has six trained doctors spread throughout its four north city locations.
Heroin addicts are invited to walk in as long as they have been drug-free for 12 hours and they are in withdrawal, leaving their bodies ready to receive treatment.
“In as soon as 15 minutes, they are totally different people,” said Regina Askew, CareSTL’s Director of Behavioral Health.
The clinic has programs that allow them not only to treat and rehabilitate, but also to offer integrated and holistic help, such as counseling, therapy, job training and housing resources.
“You have to treat the whole person. Many of them have been on the drug for so long that they have neglected their health issues like diabetes and eye care and other things,” Askew said.
“They have so many things that they have been dealing with like trauma, mental illness, grief, imprisonment, poverty, domestic violence, hopelessness; and many of these things also lead to drugs because they are trying to self-medicate,” Askew added.
“Our community is hurting,” she added. “There are so many of them who have not had the access to this kind of treatment.”