Drug overdose is now the most common cause of accidental death in the United States, primarily because of the vastly increased availability of pharmaceutical-grade opioids (e.g., Oxycodone, Vicodin). The size and impact of the epidemic can be lessened by a range of public policies, including one that the White House has been touting: Equipping first responders with naloxone hydrochloride.
In opioid overdose, breathing slows to a very low level or even stops completely, which deprives the brain of oxygen. Death or permanent organ damage can be the horrifying result. Enter naloxone, an old, off-patent (and hence inexpensive) medication with a powerful ability to force opioids out of brain receptors. Overdose is thus rapidly reversed.
Naloxone does not cure addiction. Nor does its effect last more than 30-90 minutes. However, that window of time can be used to get the overdosed person to a hospital and subsequently it is hoped into addiction treatment.
Police officers and fire fighters are often the people who discover people who have overdosed. They typically call for medical backup in such cases, but even if the EMTs take only 15 minutes to arrive, that can be too late. Training in how to recognize overdose and to then administer naloxone allows those first responders to save lives that would otherwise be lost.
Police in Quincy, Massachusetts began carrying naloxone in their cruisers in October of 2010, and have been reversing about one overdose every ten days since. Police and firefighters in other parts of the country are now copying Quincy’s successful approach.
The Obama Administration’s embrace of improving naloxone’s availability is one of many signs of how quickly U.S. drug policy has moved in a public health direction. Only a few years ago, drug policy officials in the G.W. Bush Administration condemned the use of naloxone. Today, Obama drug policy officials give out awards to successful naloxone access expansion programs. The result will be fewer overdose and more chances for people with addictions to receive the help they need to become healthy and productive.
Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.