CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY – As deaths from heroin and powerful painkillers increase throughout the U.S., governments and clinics are working to put a drug that can reverse an opiate overdose into the hands of more paramedics, police officers and people who abuse drugs.
Proponents say the opportunity to save potentially thousands of lives outweighs any fears by critics that the promise of a nearby antidote would only encourage drug abuse.
At least 17 states and the District of Columbia allow naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, to be distributed to the public, said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health. At least 10 of those states allow for third parties, such as a family member or friend of an intravenous drug user, to be prescribed the drug.
Among them is New Jersey, which passed a law last year that allows members of the public to carry naloxone, administered through a nasal spray or injection into a muscle, after getting training.
But not everyone supports the idea of making it more widely available.
In Maine, where heroin overdoses increased fourfold from 2011 to 2012, Gov. Paul LePage opposes a bill that would let health care professionals prescribe naloxone and let more emergency responders carry it. LePage, who wants to add 14 new drug enforcement agents in the state, has said the drug provides “a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.”
Naloxone is regarded within the medical community as highly effective when used properly. A study conducted during a state-supported pilot of naloxone distribution and overdose education in Massachusetts showed it was 98 percent effective in attempts to rescue a person who overdosed.
An overdose of opiates essentially makes the body forget to breathe. Naloxone works by blocking the brain receptors that opiates latch onto and helping the body “remember” to take in air. The antidote’s effects wear off in about half an hour, and multiple doses may be needed.
According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the number of overdose deaths involving prescription drugs increased 21 percent from 2006 to 2010; the number of fatal overdoses involving heroin surged 45 percent.
Bills are pending in at least seven states to increase access to naloxone, including Tennessee and Utah, where doctors would be allowed to prescribe it and civil liability for those who administer it would be dropped.
Marty Walsh, the new mayor of Boston, has called for all first responders to carry naloxone.
The White House drug policy office is also urging all first responders to have naloxone on hand. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration held hearings on making it available over the counter, but it has not yet done so.
Naloxone is available by prescription in the U.K., but an advisory council has called for OTC distribution. Prescription take-home programs are in place in Australia, Canada, Estonia and Russia. Norway plans to distribute nasal spray kits to drug users in its two largest cities.