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Largly white opioid epidemic highlights black frustration with drug war


The circle of patients gathered for group therapy at a doctor’s family practice in McKenzie, Tenn., could well represent the face of the state’s opioid epidemic.

They were in a small city in a rural county, fertile ground for prescription drug addiction, though they traveled from as far as Nashville and Missouri. They were young or middle-aged and ranged from blue-collar workers to businesspeople. They said painkillers prescribed after accidents or injuries paved the way to their dependence on opioids.

They also were all white.

Of all deaths in 2015 from opioid and heroin overdoses in Tennessee and nationwide, about 90 percent of the people were white.

Black people accounted for little more than 6 percent in Tennessee and 8 percent across the country, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Among African-Americans critical of the modern drug war launched four decades ago by President Richard Nixon, the fact that the opioid epidemic is primarily striking the majority race helps explain why it is largely being called an epidemic and treated as a public health crisis, rather than a war.

“I would say the good news in Tennessee is that the number of narcotic units prescribed has gone down by almost half,” said Dr. Daniel Sumrok, the physician treating patients at his practice in McKenzie, a West Tennessee city with a population of more than 5,500 about 130 miles northeast of Memphis.

“The bad news is that overdose deaths have gone up and oxycodone has gone up,” said Sumrok, also director of the Center for Addiction Science at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center based in Memphis.

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