On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder warned about the growing scourge of opiate addiction and overdoses while urging law enforcement officials to carry the anti-overdose drug naloxone in a video message posted to the Justice Department’s website.
“When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin,” said Holder. “It’s clear that opiate addiction is an urgent — and growing — public health crisis. And that’s why Justice Department officials, including the [Drug Enforcement Administration], and other key federal, state, and local leaders, are fighting back aggressively.”
Holder noted that heroin overdose deaths rose by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010. The rise in opiate abuse has hit certain states, such as Vermont, particularly hard. In fact, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-VT) devoted the entirety of his January State of the State address to shine light on his state’s “full-blown heroin crisis.” Twice as many Vermonters died from heroin overdoses in 2013 compared to the previous year, and the number of people seeking opiate addiction treatment in the state has ballooned by a staggering 770 percent since 2000.
Both Shumlin and the Obama White House have stressed that dealing with the epidemic requires a mix of criminal justice and law enforcement efforts, as well as treatment. In his statement on Monday, Holder urged expanded use of specialty court drug diversions programs and called on police officers and first responders to carry and learn how to administer the anti-overdose prescription medication naloxone.
Naloxone is commonly used in emergency rooms. But public health advocates argue that it makes sense to have police, who are often the first to come into contact with an overdosing individual, be equipped with it, too. While a handful of states have expanded access to the drug, the White House is encouraging more to follow suit and also pass “Good Samaritan” laws that ensure criminal protection for someone who calls for help when a person is overdosing:
There are those who disagree with treating opiate addiction and overdoses as a public health issue. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has rejected expanding access to naloxone based on what experts call a misguided assumption that such a move may encourage bad behavior. “His main objection is his belief — and I have to emphasize ‘his belief’ because there is no evidence that supports this at all — his belief that increasing the availability of Narcan or naloxone will lead the drug user or drug abuser to have this feeling of invincibility,” said Maine state Rep. Sara Gideon (D) in an interview with the Huffington Post. Maine saw the number of heroin overdoses triple in 2012 compared to the previous year.