12/01/2013 07:37 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2015

Saving Lives with Narcan: Stories from the Field

Eliza Moore never saw herself as much of a hero, certainly not one who would save the lives of multiple strangers. But thanks to a new state law that increased the availability of naloxone, or Narcan, a safe, non-addictive medication that reverses opiate overdose, saving lives is now all in a day's work.

"I saved someone with Narcan just a couple of weeks ago," she says, her voice rising with excitement at the memory. "I got a call in the middle of the night from someone panicking because a friend had overdosed on Fentanyl. We've had some bad batches [of Fentanyl] going around, so it's pretty common to see people fall out. The victim was a man, probably in his late 40s and they found him on the floor with his heart stopped. I drove over right away and gave him a shot of Narcan. Within a couple of minutes he woke up gasping and completely alert, like they do in the movies. He was really grateful to be alive."

New legislation in North Carolina allows nonprofit organizations and community groups to distribute naloxone to people at risk for overdose and their loved ones under a doctor's standing orders. This is good news for people like Eliza who struggle with addiction and tend to avoid hospitals due to mistreatment or lack of insurance. In fact, as the national overdose crisis continues to grow (drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing even car accidents) new legislation is sweeping the country to make naloxone more available to people at risk for overdose. Thirteen states have removed civil and criminal liabilities from medical providers who prescribe naloxone to patients and their loved ones, as well as from bystanders who administer the drug in good faith. Fourteen others, including North Carolina, have also passed 911 Good Samaritan laws, which grant limited immunity from some drug charges to people who call 911 to report an overdose. 911 Good Samaritan laws are an important step towards decreasing deaths from overdose; however, many drug users remain hesitant to make the call.

"No one called 911 for the guy who was overdosing. They called me instead," says Eliza. "We know about the law, but people are still scared of police. It all depends on the officer who shows up at your house. Some of them are nice and just want to help, others will look for any excuse to lock you up."

That some people still fear calling 911 despite legal protections shows that much work remains to be done if communities are serious about decreasing deaths from drug overdose. States that have recently passed 911 Good Samaritan and naloxone laws should run aggressive public awareness campaigns to educate people, including police, on the existence of the laws and the reasoning behind them. Such laws are not intended to reduce the consequences of drug use, but to allow people to live long enough to learn from them. Multiple studies report that increasing access to naloxone does not increase drug use. Indeed, the medication's side effects (opiate withdrawal) are so unpleasant as to ensure that no one would use naloxone except in a life or death situation.

Because it will take time to raise public awareness about new laws, it is more important than ever to get naloxone into the hands of people who need it. "Narcan is really what's going to save people right now," says Louise, a drug user from Greensboro, North Carolina. "911 laws won't help until we start seeing changes in law enforcement practices."

Nationwide, community groups have distributed over 53,000 naloxone kits and report more than 10,000 overdose reversals by nonmedical personnel, such as family or friends of the victim. Even in North Carolina, where the NC Harm Reduction Coalition launched its first official naloxone distribution program under a standing order on August 1st 2013, has already seen 27 overdoses reversed, including one caught on video.

"[Narcan] is amazing," says Eliza. "It gives so many people a second chance. When you're using drugs, you start and stop, try to get clean, all the time. Narcan can keep you alive long enough to make real change."