DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — In 2017, Montgomery County was “ground zero” for the U.S. opioid epidemic with 566 overdose deaths.

In the past five years, progress has been made with overall numbers cut nearly in half. It is a different story, however, in the Miami Valley’s Black communities.

Kier Smiley says the slippery slope of addiction was “black ice all the way down.”

He remembers the first time he used. “The first pickup was around 12, smoking a little pot with my friends and things of that nature.”

Fighting Fentanyl

Then his dad died, suddenly, leaving him to deal with death for the first time at just 13 years old, and unequipped emotionally.

“I end up just burying that, burying that with humor, burying that with marijuana, with whatever substances I could find.”

What started with marijuana quickly progressed to more hardcore narcotics. “I started experimenting with things, cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA, whatever was hot at the time.”

Smiley’s story is very personal, but it is not unique in Dayton’s Black community, which makes up 9% of the Montgomery County population but 20% of overdose deaths this year, according to Public Health Dayton and Montgomery County.

Dawn Schwartz is the Project Manager for Public Health’s Community Overdose Action Team. She says Black males are a vulnerable target because of the toll of trauma, and they experience a lot of it. “If you are a Black male brought up in the inner-city, you are constantly experiencing traumas.”

Dayton Police Department Major Brian Johns has witnessed the impact of the opioid epidemic for nearly a decade. He says the spike in deaths this year in the Black community is unprecedented. “We’ve never seen this many African American people dying from overdoses as we have this year. Eight of our last nine overdoses involved African American people.”

It’s a trend that has been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic.

According to the CDC, in 2020, overdose death rates increased 44% for Black people nationwide compared to 2019. The increase for white people was half of that at 22%.

The jump is an even more startling 86% spike for Black Americans 15-to-24 years old, the largest increase of any age group or race in that time frame.

Schwartz says this is a mental health issue, and it starts at home. “We bring our men up to say, ‘Don’t have feelings. You can’t cry. Don’t ask for help. You’re the rock.’ If you show any weakness on the streets, you’re a target. Predators are all over you.”

Public Health is taking a proactive approach to try and solve the problem, putting on community events in predominantly Black neighborhoods and handing out “harm reduction tools.”

Schwartz says these events and tools give people a valuable resource to avoid overdose and possible death. “They have fentanyl test strips. Project Dawn can give you both Narcan and fentanyl test strips. ADAMHS can give you both Narcan and fentanyl test strips.”

Soon the Community Overdose Action Team, known as COAT, will open its “Front Door Project,” where police officers can bring someone who has overdosed or is in need of medical attention instead of locking them up in jail.

Smiley says these kinds of resources, and the outreach by the city to help have been critical in his journey, “The resources are there. Dayton has been a safe haven for me in recovery.”

The mission according to Major Johns starts with getting people off drugs, which means treatment.

Smiley acknowledges while the overdose numbers are growing, treatment is growing as well. “It’s getting worse on one side, but the recovery scene is growing, too.”

As for Smiley’s recovery, I asked him this morning if he is winning. He said, “I didn’t pick up today, so that’s a ‘Yes!'”

Tomorrow, our Fighting Fentanyl series continues with an inspirational story of someone who, by all rights, should not be alive, but is now making it his mission to help others beat addiction as well.