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‘When America has a cold, Black America has pneumonia’: Tracie Gardner on opioid crisis’ disproportionate racial impact

Tracie Gardner, Legal Action Center’s Vice President of Policy Advocacy, joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to discuss the role that race plays in opioid addiction and treatment, and what can be done to fix the growing racial gap in the opioid crisis.

Video Transcript

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ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Welcome back to "A Time for Change." The opioid epidemic has gotten a lot of attention for what it's done to the white community, but what about what it's done to communities of color? Well, the news is not good. Opioid deaths among Black Americans are on the rise at a faster rate than among any other race, and treatment actually seems less accessible. One study found Black patients with opioid addiction were 35 times less likely to be prescribed a particular drug that's highly effective in preventing relapses and overdoses.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, to understand the role that race plays in opioid addiction and treatment I spoke with Tracie Gardner, who looks at these topics as VIce President of Policy Advocacy at the Legal Action Center. Take a listen to our conversation.

TRACIE GARDNER: I think that drug use has been long associated with other people, i.e. not white people. And the prescription painkiller epidemic kind of opened up how addiction can affect anyone. But how it affects people is not equal.

KRISTIN MYERS: So then when we talk about drug problems in white communities, they're often looked at as a public health issue. And when we look at drug problems in Black and brown communities, it is often a criminal justice problem.

TRACIE GARDNER: We're dealing with the initial-- right, this isn't our first opioid crisis. We had a heroin crisis in the '70s, and the response, as you said, was to criminalize drug use, criminalize the people who use drugs, throw people away for long prison and jail sentences. And that did not make the community any safer, it didn't reduce the use of drugs, and it actually caused more destruction to communities than it did good.

Again, because of the narrative that the overdose epidemic is primarily fueled by prescription painkillers, there's a sense that it's affecting more white and suburban individuals. And so when they have gone to use the very addiction treatment services that were just fine for Black and brown communities, they found it wanting. They found it lacking.

We need a more holistic approach, and we need more providers who are willing and able to provide medications that help reduce the risk of people overdosing. And then in terms of treatment, we're learning more about asking, why do people use drugs, rather than simply look at them as problems over the fact that they are using drugs.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, throughout this pandemic, drug overdoses have surged. And according to the CDC, it's Black Americans that are being disproportionately impacted by that. What is the root cause of that?

TRACIE GARDNER: There are some who say that when America has a cold, Black America has pneumonia. And so a lot of the kind of looking at the impact of overdose on Black Americans, in particular in this unprecedented number of overdoses, really speaks to what COVID was also demonstrating to us, which is you can only besiege communities with emergencies but for so long without making the right investments for the community to be healthy.

And so if you think about it, if we have invested as much as has been invested in law enforcement and things to protect the public safety, militarize police, drug enforcement, raids-- if we had invested that much in federally qualified health centers, systems of health care, human services, after school programs-- it's all connected in a community. And so we can't address it in a vacuum.

COVID cut people off. And the opposite of active addiction is community. It isn't treatment, it isn't abstinence, it's being connected and having a sense of, why do I need to use drugs? What are drugs doing for me that I'm not getting elsewhere?

And so the overdose numbers that are disproportionate among Black people certainly aren't unique to Black people. It's that Black Americans have a unique history with this country that has reverberated all the way to today. It wasn't that long ago that chattel slavery happened, as much as people don't want to talk about that. And the lack of investments, the oppression, the criminalization, everything from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era-- there has been a lack of infrastructure and investment in Black communities that allow communities to keep themselves healthy.

KRISTIN MYERS: So looking forward, Tracie, we are seeing state after state, and most recently New York and New Jersey, passing measures to legalize marijuana. What are the knock-on effects of such moves-- not just to this, but also to Black communities moving forward, and the relationship that the US government and some of those communities have with drugs?

TRACIE GARDNER: I think the legalization of cannabis has come as a result of some generational change. And the inescapable truth of prohibition doesn't reduce use. It creates an alternate market where the product is harmful, unregulated, and the quality actually puts more people at risk than the regulated substance does.

Of course, we should protect children from early exposure to drugs, but we should protect children period. And that would include doing things like, I don't know, universal daycare. But really, I think that there is also an opportunity in the revenue-generating opportunity of cannabis to write a whole host of wrongs and neglect.

And that would be to invest in the communities to help build them and strengthen them with the very revenues and resources that were used to criminalize the same communities. So at some point, and I believe we're in that time now, we have to really examine the impact of these policies. If they do more harm than their intended good-- and if they are harming, that we stop them soon-- we don't let them unfold over generations as we've done with the war on drugs.

KRISTIN MYERS: And of course, that was Tracie Gardner with the Legal Action Center. And when we spoke, she mentioned that addiction isn't just addiction. There is no one real root cause for why folks become addicted to drugs. And as a result, when it comes to a treatment, there is no one size fits all plan-- very interesting point we did not get to show there.