Although it is not often commented upon, the U.S. has a major drug overdose problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 114 people die every day from drug overdoses, and it is the leading cause of injury and death for those between the ages of 25 and 64, outpacing deaths from car accidents. Moreover, this death toll has been steadily rising since 1992, with a 117 percent increase between 1999 and 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available.
The majority of these deaths are from opioids, illicit drugs such as heroin, and prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. These drugs depress the nervous system, causing people with overdoses to stop breathing.
Fortunately there is a safe and effective drug to reduce overdoses. Known as Naloxone, and sold as Narcan, this drug blocks opioid receptors in the brain and allows normal breathing to resume. The most common way that police and public health officials administer the drug is by spraying it into the victim’s nostrils. It works within five minutes.
But time is of the essence in opioid overdoses. A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice issued a toolkit educating police about Naloxone and how it can reverse opioid overdoses. Encouraging law enforcement to treat overdose events as public health emergencies has the potential to save countless lives and will go far toward improving police community relations across the nation. The development of the toolkit by an advisory panel follows Attorney General Holder’s announcement in March encouraging first responders such as law enforcement to begin carrying Naloxone.
What’s important here is law enforcement’s recognition that a drug overdose is first a health problem, not a criminal one. Such recognition is pivotal to reducing the nation’s other addiction – mass incarceration. Police-community relations are enhanced when police are seen as life-savers, instead of solely as officers with the power to arrest.
During the crack epidemic of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the previous heroin crisis of the ’70s, the way our nation responded to those who use and sell drugs alike was through more draconian drug laws. Today, almost half of all federal inmates are in prison for drug crimes, and 1 in 5 state prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes. The Justice Department’s leadership on providing resources to law enforcement interested in establishing a Naloxone program marks a welcome departure from our nation’s recent struggle with how to combat the prevalence of illegal drugs. And, with 2.2 million people behind bars, utilizing police in the public health battle against drugs seems like a good use of resources
And there’s evidence to support the use of Naloxone. According to the Justice Department, 17 states and the District of Columbia have amended their laws to increase access to Naloxone – a prescription drug – resulting in over 10,000 overdose reversals since 2001.
Some states have already reaped the benefits of making Naloxone more readily available to law enforcement. The police department of Quincy, Massachusetts led the way as the first in the nation to require its officers to carry Naloxone and has successfully reversed 211 overdoses with a success rate of over 95%. And, after a pilot program in the borough of Staten Island last January, the use of Naloxone is now being expanded to the rest of New York City. The choice of Staten Island was not coincidental. It has been labelled “ground zero” in the city’s fight against opioid abuse. Three months after the program began in Staten Island, three overdoses had been reversed. Now the NYPD, the largest police force in the nation, has received funding to equip most of its 20,000 officers with Naloxone. Building on this success, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in June that Naloxone kits would be given to every first-responder unit in the state.
One concern about administering Naloxone has been police liability. Nonetheless, police are not medical personnel. Wisely, about half the states have passed laws shielding “any person” from liability if they administer Naloxone.
Obstacles remain to procuring Naloxone, which is available only by prescription. The Justice Department toolkit provides information regarding how to obtain Naloxone, such as by partnering with a local or state public health agency, which may already have a drug procurement infrastructure in place.
While effective, use of Naloxone remains only a first step. As Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. stated recently, “It is my hope that once an overdose patient has been given a second chance thanks to the life-saving efforts of a police officer, a paramedic, an EMT or a firefighter, that person will seek treatment for their addiction.” With Naloxone, law enforcement is beginning to see drug addiction as a medical problem, not a criminal one.