Shortly after my most recent article on the rise of peer-based naloxone distribution was published in TheFix.com, I received a kind email from the mother of a drug user thanking me for questioning the efficacy of naloxone programs that distribute to law enforcement instead of active drug users. While the mother thanked me for drawing attention to this problem, she graciously failed to mention that another recent article of mine had been a glowing endorsement of police naloxone programs. So I thought I would explain why despite reservations, I do support law enforcement carrying naloxone.
I completely understand the perils of training law enforcement to use naloxone at the expense of training active drug users. Law enforcement are far less likely to be present at the scene of an overdose than a user's peers, and despite 911 Good Samaritan laws that grant limited protections to drug users who seek help for an overdose, there are many who are still reluctant or afraid to contact emergency services. Worse, focusing on naloxone for law enforcement alone plays into myths that drug users aren't capable of acting responsibly in an overdose situation or that giving them access to an overdose antidote would encourage them to abuse more drugs. It deprives drug users of autonomy and entrusts their well-being to an authority that does not always have their best interests in mind. However, despite these valid concerns I still defend that naloxone should be given to law enforcement in addition to programs that distribute to active drugs users and their loved ones.
It cannot be stressed enough how important it is that law enforcement start to see drug users as people worth saving -- better yet if they have the opportunity to save them. Naloxone programs represent a paradigm shift in law enforcement attitude toward drug users from a "lock'em up" mentality to an emphasis on the value of all human life. Working in drug policy with the NC Harm Reduction Coalition I often see an almost unbridgeable gap between law enforcement and drug users, with both groups harboring stereotypes, misconceptions, even hatred of the other. I've worked with cops who are frustratingly single-minded, who seem to view their job as a real life video game of "good guys" versus "bad guys." I've worked with drug users who see themselves as freedom fighters in a bitter struggle against tyranny. But I have also met officers and users alike who understand that the world isn't so black and white and whose open-mindedness and compassion for the other offer hope that the gulf between these groups is not so wide as it seems. While naloxone is not a cure for decades of antagonism, it is a step toward bridging a historic divide.
When the Quincy, Massachusetts, police department launched one of the first law enforcement naloxone programs in the country, many officers were initially resistant. Perhaps some didn't think drug users were worth saving. But four years later, not only have Quincy officers saved 230 lives with naloxone, but the program has drastically changed the relationship between drug users and law enforcement. Lt Detective Pat Glynn, who initiated the program, has explained how some drug users now actively seek out police when an overdose occurs -- even to the point of bringing an unresponsive friend to the police station because they trust the officers to administer naloxone and not to make an arrest. Trust and understanding between users and police is so important if we are going to effectively dismantle this war on drugs that has done so much to destroy communities and criminalize human beings. It is an opportunity for law enforcement to be part of a solution that does not involve locking people in cages. It is an opportunity for drug users to see law enforcement as something other than the enemy, if only for a moment. Law enforcement naloxone programs should not take the place of outreach to active drug users, nor should they suggest that users are not capable of helping each other. But in representing a shift from the strictly punitive approach to drug use toward a health-centered model, giving naloxone to law enforcement can help repair a relationship that desperately needs to heal if we are ever to hope for saner drug policies.