President Joe Biden’s drug czar will propose changing state and local laws to allow more people to access the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone as the country continues to battle a rampaging overdose epidemic that is now claiming more than 100,000 lives every year.
Rahul Gupta, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is expected to make the proposal when he sends the administration’s first national drug control strategy to Congress on Thursday. The administration says the strategy will be the first ever to emphasize harm reduction, marking a shift away from drug control plans with a law enforcement-first approach.
“The most important action we can take to save lives right now is to have naloxone in the hands of everyone who needs it without fear or judgment,” Gupta told reporters on Wednesday.
The plan also emphasizes expanding access to addiction treatment programs ― right now, only 1 out of every 10 people who needs treatment gets it ― and on disrupting the finances of criminal organizations that ship illegal drugs into the United States.
Harm reduction strategies, including expanding access to naloxone and needle exchange programs, are often controversial. Conservatives argue the programs encourage drug use, although the widespread nature of the opioid epidemic has increased acceptance of the programs.
Naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse the effect of an overdose and can be administered intravenously or as a nasal spray. The drug has become a major tool in reducing deaths caused by the opioid epidemic, but the administration says some states and localities still limit its sale. And even in places where the drug is freely available, it does not always make it into the hands of vulnerable populations, including the homeless.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in November 2021, the most recent time frame for which data is available. Two-thirds of those deaths involved synthetic opioids, including fentanyl. Drug overdose deaths have doubled over the past six years.
The push to make naloxone freely available should attract some Republican support. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of senators and House members led by West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R) wrote letters to seven major manufacturers of the drug, encouraging them to apply to sell it over the counter.
“Given the scale of need at this moment, it has never been more important to adopt opioid overdose prevention and reversal strategies on a wide scale,” the lawmakers wrote. “This includes steps to increase access to affordable naloxone, which is a proven, effective tool to reduce medical emergencies, drug overdoses, and deaths.”