The trial over the killing of George Floyd could shape how Americans view drug addiction at a time when Black people continue to overwhelmingly be denied medical treatment compared to white Americans even as they suffer from disproportionately high rates of fatal opioid overdoses, reports USA Today. Drug use has been used to justify the death of other Black people who have been killed by white police officers, including Michael Brown in Missouri, said Scott Nolen, director of the addiction and health equity program at the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, which works to reduce drug addiction. Structural racism makes it so people of color who use drugs are wrongly seen as “throwaways,” he said.
The notion of treating drug addiction as a medical condition and not a moral failing became more widespread in the 2000s based on emerging research and as prescription opioid pain relievers became popular and thousands of white people began to die from overdoses. Unlike previous drug crises that primarily hurt low-income Americans and people of color, victims of opioid drug addiction were often portrayed by lawmakers and the media as ordinary white Americans who had fallen prey to a highly addictive substance. Of the more than 840,000 people who have died since 1999 from a drug overdose, more than 70 percent in 2019 involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the opioid crisis has largely claimed white lives, opioid-involved overdose death rates in the Black community have skyrocketed in recent years, federal data show. And yet Black people are often denied the same life saving medical treatment as white Americans to address opioid addiction, research shows. One study found Black patients were 77 percent less likely to receive buprenorphine, a drug that limits the desire for opioids.