The Role the Media Can Play in Reducing the Overdose Crisis

04/02/2013 05:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

It's rare for a day to go by in California without a news outlet reporting on a teenager's overdose death, or an increase in heroin use among young people, or a family expressing outrage at the prevalent abuse of prescription drugs in their community. It's rare, because those are all sensational stories. They get people tuned in and turning pages, but they don't do always do great job at identifying root causes of the problem, reporting any of the solutions, or describing any of the work happening to address these issues and reduce overdose deaths.

There's no question that accidental fatal drug overdose is a problem in Los Angeles and throughout California. According to the California Department of Public Health, it was the leading cause of accidental injury-related death in 2009 and the numbers have been going up for years. But there are ways to save lives and prevent overdose deaths. Solutions that deal with the problem without hysteria or hyperbole. Those might be less 'sexy' stories, perhaps, but ones that we need to hear. Media can, and should, play a crucial role in not just reporting the problems, but covering the efforts to solve them, as well.

We should be championing the efforts of many to bring overdose prevention education and the opiate overdose reversal medication naloxone to the public. Naloxone, a generic drug also called Narcan, has been around for decades, costs very little and is the go-to medication in emergency rooms and ambulances all across the country when trying to save someone experiencing an opiate overdose on a drug such as heroin or OxyContin.

Naloxone is perfectly legal. It's not a narcotic and you can't get addicted to it. Its only purpose is to reverse an opiate overdose and help to restore normal breathing when administered to the overdose victim. It was approved by the FDA in the 1970s, but many doctors still don't know about it. Imagine how many deaths could be prevented if only physicians were prescribing it to their patients on long-term pain medication therapy, such as cancer patients on high doses of narcotic painkillers. Imagine if addiction medicine specialists were prescribing this to their patients on medication assisted treatments such as methadone.

A bill introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), AB 635, would offer limited liability protections to doctors and other licensed health professionals who prescribe and distribute naloxone. The bill costs the taxpayers nothing and will free up physicians, family members and good samaritans to take action to prevent overdose fatalities.

Another great bill auithored by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) is addressing the issue of program expansion head-on with his bill AB 831, an effort to establish a modest but urgently needed funding source for overdose prevention programs throughout the state. I'm proud to be a part of the organized effort of dozens of Californians to help secure passage of the bill. We've all been working hard on this for months. Many of these same people worked hard to help pass California's '911 Good Samaritan' overdose death prevention law last year (thanks again to the leadership of Assemblymember Tom Ammiano).

The '911 Good Samaritan' law is an excellent example of the crucial role media can play in helping to turn the tide of our state's overdose crisis. Dozens of parents who lost loved ones to overdose and advocates worked to secure the passage of this new law which exempts the overdose victim and the 911 caller from arrest for minor drug law violations, such as possessing small amounts of drugs, when emergency medical help is summoned to the scene of an overdose. This law encourages people to respond quickly and try to save a life, but without the media shining a light on it, it's virtually impossible to let the populace of a state as large as California know it exists. Simply letting people know about laws that aim to prevent death and save lives is an extremely significant way the media can be of great service.

Overdose is a complicated issue, affecting all kinds of different people from all walks of life. It requires a comprehensive, thoughtful approach to tackle it sufficiently. Stories that emphasize only particular elements of the problem create the impression that if we target just that one element, we'll solve the problem. But of course that simply isn't true.

When the media reports on drugs and overdose, it does a service for the community. It's important to inform the populace about threats to their safety and well-being. But when the media fails to mention any of the solutions and the hard work of countless people to address the problem, it fails all of us. We need the facts. Solutions like expanded access to naloxone and the 911 Good Samaritan law work and can save lives -- but only if people know about them.

Meghan Ralston is the Harm Reduction Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance