Overdose Prevention Goes Mainstream

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August 27, 2014 - By Meghan Ralston

Every year around this time, people around the world who work on issues related to overdose prevention start talking about what they might protest or which issue we might organize ourselves around for International Overdose Awareness Day (August 31).

In previous years, some of us have called out the philanthropic community for their lack of significant financial commitment to the public health problem of overdose. We’ve raised money for small but essential naloxone distribution programs; we’ve demanded greater access to naloxone, the lifesaving antidote to opiate overdose; we’ve called for more (and more comprehensive) ’911 Good Samaritan’ Laws. We unite our community  and champion better solutions that don’t criminalize or stigmatize people who use drugs or people who accidentally overdose on them.  We hold protests, vigils, rallies and marches.

Normally I’m pretty riled up this time of year.  But this August, I’m smiling, encouraged and praising people like the U.S. Attorney General for their progressive views on overdose prevention.

Wait—what? That can’t be right. Did I really just say that?

Well, yes. We’ve all been kicking a lot of ass lately. Drug policy reformers, harm reductionists, legislators and yes, even cops, have all been starting to hold hands and sing overdose prevention Kumbaya. Everyone is trying to play nice and work together to find ways to help prevent drug overdoses from becoming fatal (or from happening in the first place, for that matter). It’s great. But also weird—questions and concerns remain. But mostly great.

So much has happened since the last Overdose Awareness Day that it’s been hard to keep up with it. States like New York and Vermont have been busily passing great legislation that makes naloxone much more easily accessible. Rhode Island found a hero in Walgreens, which stepped up in a major way to start getting naloxone into the hands of people who might one day use it to save a life. And then, not to be outshined, CVS got on board. California’s bill that would allow pharmacists to furnish naloxone without a prescription sailed through the Legislature with strong, unanimous, bipartisan support and is now sitting on the governor’s desk, waiting for his signature.

Evzio, the hand-held device that talks to you as you administer naloxone, was released. Some grumbled about the high cash price while others cheered the mainstreaming of naloxone and overdose prevention. When Wired magazine does a story about naloxone to reverse opiate overdose, you know something has shifted.

Sheriffs departments all across the country began equipping their officers with naloxone. A couple here, a couple there, and lately it’s been feeling like a wave of them. In California, we saw uber-conservative San Diego sheriffs actively embrace the opportunity to carry and use naloxone (while Los Angeles law enforcement seems to be dragging its feet on the naloxone issue, but that’s another blog topic for another day). And now the media happily reports each ‘naloxone save’ made by all of those officers in all of those towns.

Is it just me or is naloxone having a moment? Whatever it is, it’s fantastic and very long overdue.

And while we’re all expressing some gratitude for this shift in consciousness, let’s not forget that we must never lose sight of the fact that too many people die from drug overdoses alone and behind a locked door—in many cases too ashamed, embarrassed or defeated to bring their drug use (or drug dependence) out in the open, where at least we could help make sure they didn’t die alone if something went awry.  Maybe it’s just me, but I always cry a little when I read stories about a human being who overdosed and died alone in a gas station bathroom. It wrecks me. No human being should ever be so judged and hated for using drugs that they spend their last moments alive on Earth in shame and isolation, alone.

I miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. That needed to be said here. I didn’t know him, but I miss him all the same. The world misses him.

Let’s get naloxone in as many hands as possible. And let’s really celebrate the gigantic progress we’ve made in just the past 12 months.  But let’s also have some compassion for people still struggling and those we lost.  My heart is with all of them this year.

Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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