By Karen Stokes
Milwaukee’s African American community is facing another epidemic, with the highest rates of overdose deaths among its members.
According to city.milwaukee.gov, Milwaukee County saw a staggering 52% increase in fatal overdoses among African Americans between 2020 and 2021, higher than any other racial group. Other statistics show fatal overdose deaths among Black women rose by 144% between 2015 and 2020, particularly impacting women who use drugs.
Milwaukee native, Earl Stokes, on-air personality at WJMR-FM is currently involved in a radio campaign with Vital Strategies encouraging listeners to engage in community substance use prevention initiatives and advocating for the use of Naloxone also known as Narcan.
“I have a deep connection to my community,” Stokes said. “I remember the strong sense of unity and family in our neighborhoods during the 70s and 80s. Witnessing this epidemic sweep through our community is alarming, especially knowing that it can be prevented.”
According to the CDC, Milwaukee ranks 8th in the country for drug overdoses, and every five minutes, someone dies from a preventable overdose in the United States. This crisis is affecting people of all ages, including teachers, parents, cousins, aunties, and bus drivers within the Black community.
But there is hope.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan®, is a lifesaving medication that can reverse opioid overdoses. Narcan works by blocking the effects of opioids on the brain and restoring breathing. Narcan will only be effective if opioids are present in the person’s system.
“Narcan gives people the power to help someone. People are dying from overdoses that can be reversed,” emphasized Stokes. “Narcan is readily available for free, no questions asked, at local fire stations.”
Tahira Malik, founder and CEO of Samad’s House, 2875 North 23rd Street, has had some personal struggles and journeys in her life that provided her an opportunity to see where there was a gap for women trying to receive sufficient healthcare in regards to recovery.
“The mission of Samad’s House is to create an environment for individuals that have a history of substance use to provide them with a safe space to restore their families and comfortably acclimate into society.
Samad’s House is an Arabic word meaning self-sufficient and independent. Everything that we do, the end goal is independence.”
A second Samad’s House recently opened this year specifically for women with children.
“The world of drugs is not anything new to the African American community. But the way that we’re able to save lives due to overdose is new. Narcan is a tool that immediately, directly can reverse a drug overdose and can save a life and it does that in a matter of seconds,” Malik said.
Malik gave an example of the lifesaving power of Narcan, “We go out in the community on Mondays. Two weeks ago we were on 27th and Burleigh and had a community collective providing Narcan and drug testing strips. No sooner than we got ready to leave we turned the corner and noticed a man was on the side of the building of an abandoned store and he was in an active overdose. One of my ambassadors jumped into action and administered Narcan and it brought him right back to life.”
Samad’s House is actively engaged in the community, offering training and awareness programs. They operate four locations distributing Narcan, the two Samad’s House locations also Ashley’s BBQ, 1501 W Center and Handsome Barber Shop, 2720 N Teutonia. There is no requirement for individuals to provide identifying information.
There are 11 vending machines around the city of Milwaukee that also houses Narcan, testing strips, gun locks, and a host of harm reduction resources that has 24/7 access. Details on the vending machine locations can be found on the Milwaukee County website.
On International Overdose Awareness Day (August 31) which is a day to remember and grieve those that we’ve lost to substance use, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) awarded $279 million to 49 states, the District of Columbia, and 40 local health departments to help stop overdoses within their communities.
The resources come from two new Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) funding opportunities and fill a longstanding gap in funding for local communities by specifically supporting city, county, and territorial health departments.
“Narcan isn’t a substitute for professional medical care. It’s a tool small enough to fit in your pocket, that can save a life,” Stokes said.
For more information on Narcan and drug overdose prevention resources go to the Office of African American Affairs website at city.milwaukee.gov.