Sharp increases in heroin deaths and prescription narcotics abuse are becoming an urgent public health crisis now. To stem the increasing problem, Attorney General Eric Holder reports that his agency is taking additional action to prevent deadly overdoses and stop drug trafficking.
One Justice Department effort is calling for increased use of the overdose reversal medication, naloxone (also marketed as Narcan.) Holder is advocating for first responders to carry the drug with them at all times. He wants law enforcement agencies to train and supply their police and fire departments with naloxone, which can reverse an overdose and resuscitate a victim if administered fast enough. Naloxone is sprayed into a victim’s nose or injected into the blood stream. It can revive someone who is already turning blue so that a few minutes later they are talking with the paramedic.
Two arguments against naloxone are possible criminal prosecution for non-doctors who administer naloxone and the idea that the drug would give abusers a misleading sense of security that all overdoses are reversible. To combat the first argument, Good Samaritan laws have been passed in almost 20 states that grant immunity from criminal charges to someone who administers naloxone. As for the second argument, it is true that naloxone will not revive everyone. It might be too late or, in some cases, the drug might need to used again if the person responds and then more of the heroin in his or her system kicks in further. However, most drug users already have the misleading sense of security that the dose they are about to take will be fine.
According to Holder, more states are recognizing the benefits of having naloxone readily available to law enforcement. Almost 20 states and Washington, D.C., have increased access to naloxone. Increased access to the drug is expected to soon become law in several other states. He indicated that the drug has reversed more than 10,000 overdoses since 2001.
Naloxone is clearly not being used enough. Heroin deaths reportedly increased 45 percent from 2006 to the more than 3,000 that took place in 2010 and continues to escalate as a public health crisis now.
Connecticut is one state that is showing an even higher rate of escalation. Overdose deaths related to heroin were 174 in 2012 and 257 in 2013, a 48 percent increase. Other hard hits parts of the country are Chicago and Vermont.
Holder noted that addiction to heroin and opiates in general – whether prescription or not – is impacting American throughout the country. In addition, the increased prescription drug abuse in the last decade is helping to escalate the increase in heroin abuse. Deaths from overdoses of prescription opiates like oxycodone topped 16,600 in 2010. Experts say people who abuse oxycodone develop a tolerance to the drug and often turn to heroin, which is actually less expensive to purchase.
The increased demand for heroin has led to an increase in trafficking. Most United States heroin enters from Mexico. The Drug Enforcement Agency is trying to crackdown on the heroin importation. Seizures of heroin trying to enter the country across the Mexican border jumped 320 percent since 2008, according to USA Today.
Stopping trafficking and reversing overdoses may help, but the key to dealing with the heroin and opiate deaths addiction health crisis now is to also increase addiction education and treatment programs. In Connecticut now, heroin dependency is right behind alcohol as the reason people will seek treatment. Their Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services reports that more than 10,000 people in Connecticut were admitted for heroin treatment in 2013, up from below 9,000 the prior year.
By Dyanne Weiss