On Tuesday, the Obama administration encouraged law enforcement officials across the country to start carrying naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses from heroin and prescription pain killers. Naloxone helps an individual remain breathing even after they’ve introduced a high level of opioids to their system.
Naloxone has been used in emergency departments for years. But since police officers are often the first on the scene when an individual is overdosing, equipping them with naloxone can be a critical method of expanding early access to the lifesaving prescription drug. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, first began calling for the widespread use of the overdose reversal drug back in 2012.
On a conference call on Tuesday, Kerlikowske reiterated that position — and noted that combating the rise of drug overdose deaths requires a serious public health response, not necessarily a criminal justice crackdown. “We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” Kerlikowske explained. “Drug addiction is a disease of the brain — a disease that can be prevented, treated, and from which one can recover.”
A handful of states have already begun to expand police officers’ and first responders’ access to naloxone, a trend that the White House is encouraging more states to continue. Allowing cops to carry nalaxone is most effective when coupled with “Good Samaritan” laws, which ensure criminal protection for the people seeking medical help for someone who’s at risk of overdosing. Not every state has that combination on the books yet, though:
According to the White House, an estimated 100 Americans die from drug overdoses every day. About half of those deaths are due to heroin and prescription drug abuse, which have been on the rise over the past several years. The FDA considers the misuse of opioid products to be at “epidemic proportions” in some parts of the United States. And federal health officials have encouraged the medical community to learn how to better screen for drug abuse, so that they can attempt to intervene before it becomes a chronic or a life-threatening condition.
The issue has gained renewed attention over the past week, after the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away from an apparent heroin overdose. Health officials have been capitalizing on the media coverage to get the word out about a deadly combination of heroin and a different synthetic opiate, a mix that has been linked to at least 15 recent deaths.
Some experts are also pointing out that while Hoffman’s tragic death has recently brought heroin addiction to the attention of many Americans, the issue is unfortunately much bigger than one individual. “For every celebrity that overdoses, there are 75 to 100 addicts that die. And for every celebrity with an addiction problem, there are millions more that suffer in silence,” Ben Levenson, who founded a substance abuse treatment facility called Origins Recovery Center, told CBS News.