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March 25, 2006 - Boston Globe (MA)

Drug Tally Shoots Down A Racial Myth

Whites Top City's Rising Toll From Abuse

By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff

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A new report by the Boston Public Health Commission explodes the myth that drug abuse is centered in the city's minority communities, indicating that while whites make up half of city residents, they comprise two-thirds to three-fourths of those who have died from drug abuse in recent year

The figures show the deadly grip of heroin, OxyContin, and other drugs tightening in Boston, where 50 percent more residents died from drugs in 2003 than in 1999, the time period covered by the study. Of the 145 drug-related deaths in 2003, most from overdoses, 94 of victims were white, 32 black, and 19 Hispanic.

The gap between whites and minority group members in drug-related deaths persisted over the five years studied, although the size of the difference fluctuated. Death rates rose for all racial groups studied: whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

Drug abuse counselors said yesterday that the increase in drug-related deaths is fueled by the availability of $4 bags of heroin and an increasing number of people using combinations of substances: crystal methamphetamine, heroin, and alcohol, for example. At the same time, they said, there is less treatment available for addicts trying to kick their habits.

Drug counselors confirmed the city's findings on racial differences in mortality rates, part of an exhaustive annual report on the health of Bostonians. For example, among the 1,000 people treated in 2004 by Victory Programs Inc., a network of 18 residential treatment centers in Boston, 62 percent were white, 22 percent were black, and 11 percent were Hispanic, officials there said.

Most were addicted to heroin, the leading cause of drug-related deaths in Boston, said John Auerbach, executive director of the Health Commission.

City treatment centers are reporting that more white residents are abusing heroin than blacks and Hispanics, who tend to use crack or cocaine, which can be less lethal than heroin. Part of the reason may be the strength of heroin being peddled in South Boston and Charlestown, neighborhoods with large white populations, he said.

"There is a much larger use of heroin now in the white neighborhoods than there ever was before," said state Representative Brian P. Wallace, a South Boston Democrat who has been trying to boost funding for drug treatment programs.

"The heroin is rampant," he said yesterday. "It's cheaper, purer, and people are buying it. We're seeing people in their 40s who are OD-ing."

The city's figures show that the per capita rate of deaths caused by drugs is highest in South Boston and Charlestown, followed by North Dorchester and East Boston, all communities with large proportions of white residents. In South Boston and Charlestown, 69 people per 100,000 died from drug use in 2003, more than double the citywide rate of 26.3 per 100,000.

Jonathan D. Scott, president of Victory Programs, which runs treatment centers in Jamaica Plain, the South End, Dorchester, Mattapan, and other neighborhoods, said that "it drives me crazy" to hear people talk about drug problems disproportionately affecting minority communities.

"It's just one of the fallacies that gets perpetuated, that this is a ghetto problem in minority housing projects," Scott said. "It really is affecting every community in this city."

Yet even as cheaper, purer heroin is being sold on the streets of Boston, the number of detoxification beds available in the city has plummeted by 39 percent, from 311 in 2001 to 189 in 2003, Auerbach said. The number of residents receiving treatment fell in 2004 to its lowest point in at least three years, with 16,532 people admitted to city drug treatment centers. The Public Health Commission blamed state budget cuts for the decline.

"Obviously, we need more beds," said John McGahan, executive director of Cushing House, a treatment center for teens in South Boston. Cushing House, with its 16 beds for boys and 12 for girls, has been full since the center opened in 1999, McGahan said, "and that's probably always going to be the case for some time."

He said he also has seen people of different races generally coming in for treatment for addiction to different drugs. "We don't see a lot of minorities that actually use heroin -- they tend to use crack and cocaine, marijuana and alcohol -- and you're going to have many more deaths from opiates than cocaine or crack," he said.

Drug counselors said they also are treating increasing numbers of young people using lethal combinations of drugs. Sometimes, teenagers using OxyContin switch to heroin because it is cheaper and so pure that it can be snorted instead of injected, making it easier to use. Young people also mix heroin with prescription antianxiety drugs or crystal methamphetamine. Scott compared the cocktail's effect on the body to trying to drive a car with the gas and brakes on at the same time.

"When you mix those drugs it doesn't take long for the car to combust, explode," he said.

In 2003, 32.9 whites per 100,000 died of drugs, compared to 25.2 blacks and 22.6 Hispanics per 100,000, the health commission study said. The figure for all races was 26.3 per 100,000. The Public Health Commission said it did not tally other races because deaths among them were too few to separate statistically.

Among men in Boston, drugs were the sixth-most common cause of death in 2003, behind heart disease, cancer, injuries, chronic pulmonary disease, and stroke and ahead of HIV, AIDS, and diabetes, the study said. Substance abuse is not among the dozen leading causes for women.

Auerbach said he hopes the report draws attention to the danger of reducing treatment services. "We knew this was a growing problem, and the number of deaths illustrate it tragically," he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company

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