Every action has a reaction and every decision has a consequence. Remember that lesson you learned early in life?
A funny thing happened on the way to introducing naloxone to the world of drug addicts. Experts in the field decided this antidote to near fatal drug overdoses was a near miracle that would save lives and help steer drug abusers back from the brink. Once saved, they opined, the addict could then seek meaningful treatment.
With that endorsement the push was on to try to get every ambulance and law enforcement officer to carry doses of the wonder drug, known most widely by the brand name Narcan. Emergency medical technicians were given vials of naloxone to inject into overdosed addicts. Beat cops got nasal spray doses to administer while they waited for an ambulance. Both proved to be highly successful in bringing addicts back to consciousness.
Regulation of naloxone varies state to state. In 2010, Quincy, Massachusetts became one of the first to require its police officers to carry naloxone. Earlier this year, New Mexico became the first state to mandate that each and every law enforcement officer be equipped with naloxone. And, nationwide, other states are broadening the public availability of the drug. Today it is not hard for addicts, their friends or family members to get take-home doses – with or without a prescription – at doctor’s offices, pharmacies or community clinics.
Without a doubt, countless thousands have had their lives saved with a dose of Narcan. But then what? Reports from the front lines make it clear: reviving an overdosed patient does not lead them to suddenly seek a sober lifestyle. Furthermore, the widespread availability of this antidote has made many addicts feel invincible.
“We gave Narcan to one particular addict 20 times in one month,” an EMT from a rural upstate New York town told me recently. “And the parents don’t care. They just keep calling us to revive their kid.”
Narcan does seem like a wonder drug. It brings back to life addicts who look lifeless, their lips blue, their breathing nearly undetectable. It works by surrounding opioid receptors in the brain, spine and gut and blocking the effect of narcotics. What the nonchalant drug abuser may not know is that Narcan also causes severe withdrawal symptoms which all but guarantees that a user will be left with a massive desire to quickly find another fix to stop the pain.
In Ohio, where the opioid epidemic led to a record breaking 4,100 + overdoses last year one emergency room doctor openly worries about the increasing use of naloxone.
“It’s such a frustrating problem. We’re saving lives, but it’s only temporary,” Dr. Lisa Deranek said. Repeat overdose patients are common.
“Just throwing Narcan on this opioid fire is not going to fix it (but) I’m afraid the government thinks it is.”
The latest from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2014) reports that over 7 million Americans struggle with a drug abuse disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than half a million people died of drug overdoses between 2000 and 2015. This is a complex problem to tackle.
Simply put, Narcan is not the panacea advocates hoped it would be. And for law enforcement it highlights just one more societal problem heaped upon them to have to deal with.
“It’s just reviving somebody who’s going to go back and get high the same day,” said Butler County, Ohio Sheriff Richard Jones. “It’s a war that we’re losing.”
The unsolved problem, of course, is this country’s apparent inability to effectively treat drug addiction.
Interestingly, as the nation’s overdose problem has increased so has the cost of naloxone. In 2014, the price was about $19 a vial. By late 2015 the price of a package of two pre-filled auto-injectors had jumped to $900. By February 2016 that skyrocketed to $4,500. The prescription tracking company IMS Health concludes that naloxone sales have quadrupled in the last few years and now top nearly $81 million.
Think what bona fide drug treatment programs could do with an infusion of $81 million dollars. Rather than spend that much money to slap a temporary band aid on a problem wouldn’t it be smarter to divert at least some of those funds to programs that could help addicts wean themselves back to health? More money would translate to more available treatment beds which all experts agree are sorely lacking.
Decisions have consequences. It’s pretty clear now that sinking tens of millions into a path that doesn’t really reduce the number of addicts in America was more than just a bad idea. It was a mistake.