St. Louis — She screamed and cried, banged on the dashboard, begging her husband to drive faster, faster, faster toward her brother lying face-down on his bedroom floor.
Craig Elazer had struggled all his life with anxiety so bad his whole body would shake. But because he was Black, he was seen as unruly, she said, not as a person who needed help. Elazer, 56, started taking drugs to numb his nerves before he was old enough to drive a car.
Now his sister, Michelle Branch, was speeding toward his apartment in an impoverished, predominantly Black neighborhood in north St. Louis. His family had dreaded the day he would die of an overdose for so long that his mother had already paid for his funeral in monthly installments.
It was September, and as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified America’s addiction crisis in nearly every corner of the country, many Black neighborhoods like this one suffered most acutely. The portrait of the nation’s opioid epidemic has long been painted as a rural white affliction, but the demographics have been shifting for years as deaths surged among Black Americans. The pandemic hastened the trend by further flooding the streets with fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, in communities with scant resources to deal with addiction.
In the city of St. Louis, deaths among Black people increased last year at three times the rate of whites, skyrocketing more than 33% in a year.
Dr. Kanika Turner, a local physician leading efforts to contain the crisis, describes the soaring death rate as a civil rights issue as pressing as any other. The communities being hit hardest are those that were devastated by the war on drugs that demonized Black drug users and hollowed out neighborhoods by sending Black men to prison instead of treatment, she said.
Last year, George Floyd died in Minneapolis under a police officer’s knee. He had fentanyl in his system and some of the officer’s defenders tried to blame the drugs for his death. The world exploded in rage.
“That incident on top of the pandemic rocked the boat and shook all of us. It ripped the Band-Aid off a wound that has always been there,” said Turner. “We’re undoing history of damage, history of trauma, history of racism.”
Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s were far more brutal on crack cocaine users, who were more likely to be Black, than they were for powder cocaine users, who were more likely to be white.
Many who work with Black drug users say that addiction was not widely accepted as a public health crisis — with a focus on treatment instead of incarceration — until the current opioid epidemic began in the late 1990s when addiction to prescription opioids took root in struggling, predominately-white communities.
When white people started dying and people on TV talked about how they needed to be saved from this public health tragedy, Branch wondered where they’d been when her brother was swirling into addiction.
She can’t count the number of times her brother tried to get sober.
Even today, Black people are more likely to be in jail for drug crimes and less likely to access treatment.