Addressing Increasing Opioid Overdoses in Massachusetts


August 31, 2021

In Massachusetts, we experienced a 5% overall increase in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020 compared to 2019—the first increase in annual opioid-related deaths in three years. Even more significant is the overdose death rate among Black non-Hispanic males which increased 69%—the most of any ethnic or racial group—during the same period.

Today, August 31, is Overdose Awareness Day, an international campaign focused on remembering those who have died and acting to prevent future deaths. Whatever your role, as a state and as programs and communities working to end overdose, on this day and year-round, we must take action to decrease the number of people overdosing.

One way to take action is to implement and support harm reduction strategies to reduce overdoses. Important harm reduction strategies include access to naloxone and use of safer smoking and snorting tactics. The harm reduction approach to substance use is based on the belief that all people are capable of change and will do so when they are ready, and circumstances allow. Although to some harm reduction practices may seem counterintuitive on the surface, the effectiveness is undeniable.

It is imperative to make sure naloxone—a medication that reverses overdoses—is available in as many ways and places as possible, including through first responders, in healthcare settings, and other programs for people experiencing opioid use disorder, and with overdose survivors and their family members and friends. It is also important to support safer smoking and sniffing programs by distributing safer supplies and equipment.

While these and other harm reduction approaches are critical, to really and truly end overdose in Massachusetts, we must also act on what the data is showing by focusing specifically on decreasing the number of Black men who are overdosing. To achieve this in Massachusetts, we need to implement culturally responsive, racially equitable services and supports specifically designed with and for Black men.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a report in 2020, The Opioid Crisis and the Black/African American Population: An Urgent Issue. In addition to standard treatment—and because the Black community experiences specific challenges to accessing treatment—the report makes the following community-informed recommendations:

  • Implement a comprehensive, holistic approach
  • Involve the community and develop multi-sectoral, diverse community partnerships
  • Increase culturally relevant public awareness
  • Employ culturally specific engagement strategies including faith-based organizations and community-embraced first responders
  • Create a culturally relevant and diverse workforce

In 2021, RIZE aims to create an equitable and just system of care for diverse individuals of any background who struggle with opioid use in our newly launched Innovations in Anti-Racism in Addiction Treatment grant program. This effort supports community-based organizations to design and implement programs that serve Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) with opioid use disorder.  AHOPE, a program of the Boston Public Health Commission and one of the grantees, is addressing unique drug-related harms experienced by BIPOC who use drugs. They are implementing and expanding safer smoking and sniffing initiatives and conducting targeted outreach within BIPOC communities in Boston to engage drug users of color in harm reduction interventions such as drug checking.

By implementing harm reduction strategies and developing community-specific programs for Black men and other BIPOC folks, we will address the increasing rate of overdoses in Massachusetts and increase access to treatment and recovery services and supports for those who need them most. 

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