On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new campaign aimed at curbing heroin overdoses, encouraging law enforcement officials to carry naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug that has saved thousands of lives.
"Addiction to heroin and other opiates -- including certain prescription pain-killers -- is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life -- and all too often, with deadly results,” Holder said in a video posted to the Justice Department's website. "Used in concert with ‘Good Samaritan’ laws, which grant immunity from criminal prosecution to those seeking medical help for someone experiencing an overdose, naloxone can save lives."
Naloxone is an opiate antagonist, meaning it blocks the potentially fatal effects of drugs like heroin, morphine and oxycodone on the central nervous system and the respiratory system and quickly restores breathing to normal levels. The drug has no effect if there are no opiates in the user's body, and does not carry a potential for abuse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, naloxone reversed more than 10,000 overdoses between 1996 and 2010.
Currently, the drug is used by paramedics and other first responders in both injectable and nasal forms. However, neither is currently available over the counter. And just 17 states and the District of Columbia have laws expanding access to the life-saving drug.
“I don’t think we will have successfully dealt with this until naloxone is available over the counter at an affordable price,” Dan Bigg, founder of the Chicago Recovery Alliance and one of the first activists pushing to expand access to naloxone, told NationSwell earlier this month. Activists like Biggs hope to distribute kits outfitted with the nasal spray form of naloxone, and instruct more individuals on how to properly administer the overdose-reversing drug.
Studies have shown that the drug could cut the overdose death rate by up to 50 percent. Still, some lawmakers have taken a stand against legislation expanding access to naloxone -- including Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
Last year, the Republican governor vetoed one such bill, claiming it would "would make it easier for those with substance abuse problems to push themselves to the edge, or beyond. It provides a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby."LePage's assertion is not supported by medical research.
When a similar bill came across the governor's desk earlier this year, LePage's administration instead argued that the measure would be too costly for the state, with each dose costing somewhere between $20 and $50.
But others, like Holder and lawmakers across the country, see the potential benefits far outweighing the costs.
“My lead co-sponsor, Dr. Terry Johnson, says, you know, we aren’t able to get someone help if they’ve died,” Ohio State Rep. Michael Stinziano, the co-author of a bill expanding naloxone availability, said last month. “And so this legislation is going to be about saving lives. And you don’t know what heroin dose is going to be the one that may send you into an overdose state.”