Today, overdose prevention advocates and drug policy reformers are feeling some wind beneath their wings, as a result of a statement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging expanded access to the overdose reversal medicine naloxone. This DOJ naloxone shout-out comes within just days of Congresswoman Donna Edwards introducing her federal overdose prevention legislation, the S.O.S. (Stop Overdose Stat) Act, which would help bring urgently needed federal dollars to tackle the overdose crisis in a variety of ways, including naloxone access.
While it’s no doubt exciting and gratifying to see the AG giving naloxone some props, it’s all too easy to forget that naloxone alone is not going to get us out of the overdose jam we’re in. It’s a complex problem. It requires a comprehensive and sophisticated strategy, including and – even beyond – naloxone and Good Samaritan laws.
We need a scientific, health-based approach to truly address the roots of the problem. This includes improving access to effective, non-coercive drug treatment for everyone who wants it, as well as improving access to medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine. We need to make sure we’re getting the right help, in the right way, to anyone who wants it. Heroin-assisted treatment, supervised injection facilities – there are so many interventions and medications available to people and we need to make sure we’re matching the right approach to the right person at the right time.
We need to significantly improve the quality of our conversations about drug use and drug safety. Saving a life can be as simple as sitting down with your teenager and asking, “Tell me what you know about the riskiest combinations of drugs that could lead to an accidental fatal overdose.” Do they know? Do you know? Let’s make all of that lifesaving information widely and easily available on a number of websites and in a number of ways. Many fatal overdoses are polydrug overdoses, meaning more than one substance was involved. In many cases, alcohol played a role. Let’s share this kind of information with people who may be at risk.
We of course need policies that make naloxone much more widely available to anyone who may witness an opiate overdose, especially friends and family members of people who use heroin or prescription opioids. While Attorney General Holder should be applauded for his clear support for expanding access to naloxone, particularly among law enforcement and ‘first responders,’ he should also be urged to clarify that he supports naloxone access for anyone who may be the first person to discover an opiate overdose in progress. The term ‘first responder’ usually describes law enforcement, paramedics and firefighters, but often family members or friends are the first to witness an overdose. Naloxone absolutely works, but only when it’s used right away. A quick response is essential when using naloxone to save a life. Let’s be unambiguous about how important it is for laypeople ‘first responders’ to have the same access and ability to save a life with naloxone as other first responders.
States like Washington and Rhode Island are helping to make naloxone more readily available in pharmacies to people who may witness an overdose, and a bill in California by Assemblymember Richard Bloom to similarly expand naloxone access in pharmacies is currently being considered by the legislature.
In his announcement, Holder also urged support for ‘911 Good Samaritan’ laws. Fourteen states and D.C. have passed such laws in recent years, most of which were spearheaded by DPA.
"It's clear that opiate addiction is an urgent and growing public health crisis … 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,'' according to the Justice Department’s announcement.
911 Good Samaritan laws need to be passed in every state. It’s critical to ensure that no one ever delays calling for help at the scene of an overdose out of fear of being arrested for possessing a small amount drugs. These laws are such a no-brainer that it’s hard to understand why every state doesn’t have them yet. We applaud the Attorney General for shining a national spotlight on the importance of these laws.
Virtually every day it seems there’s a new story from somewhere in the country extolling the virtues and benefits of naloxone. Overdose prevention advocates and drug policy reformers have been champions for it for years. Now it seems that even the US Attorney General agrees with us.
We are thankful for the progress – but much more needs to be done. We look forward to working with the administration to expand commonsense solutions to save as many lives as possible.
Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.