We recently marked International Overdose Awareness Day. This day was intended to remember and honor those who have lost their lives to an accidental overdose. No one should ever die from a preventable drug overdose, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, fatal drug overdoses now rank as the leading cause of accidental death in the US for adults ages 25-64, surpassing motor-vehicle accidents. Surprisingly, the typical overdose victim is not an illegal drug user. Deaths attributed to legal prescription drugs, such as oxycodone, exceed all heroin and cocaine deaths combined. When will we take this crisis seriously?
Although medical experts recognize addiction as a chronic disease, the nagging misconception that it's a moral failure contributes to the stigma and shame associated with it. Criminalizing people with addiction can make the pursuit of a productive life an impossible dream.
The continued allegiance to erroneous beliefs supports a drug war mentality, which stands in sharp contrast to harm reduction. We need to focus on public health strategies aimed at providing addicted persons with life-saving services until they are able to avail themselves to treatment.
Thanks to the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the scales are beginning to tip in favor of compassion and reason. The bipartisan Stop Overdose Stat Act was recently introduced in Congress to help prevent overdose fatalities by supporting community-based prevention programs. A number of states have recently passed '911 Good Samaritan' laws, which are designed to encourage people to call 911 to report an overdose as quickly as possible. And with the DPA's support, Moms United to End the War on Drugs has launched a national campaign to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs.
The national crisis of overdose from opiate prescription pills has spawned welcome, if surprising, new allies in law enforcement. The Rensselaer County's Sheriff's Office, a small department in New York State, is one of a handful of agencies around the country willing to think outside the box to save lives. According to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), Rensselaer County trains police deputies in the use of Narcan (naloxone), an opiate reversal drug that can be administered to revive a person who has overdosed.
For many years, state law only allowed Advanced Life Support certified Emergency Medical Technicians to administer Narcan. Three years ago, Sheriff Jack Mahar and Dr. Michael Daly, medical director of the Rensselaer EMT program, were successful in changing this policy.
Opiate pills had become such a problem that deputies were carrying Narcan for their dogs in case one of them accidentally ingested the drugs. "We wanted to use Narcan on people, too," said Sheriff Mahar in an interview with the NCHRC.
If other Narcan programs around the country are any indication, the Rensselaer County sheriff deputies are poised to become community heroes. In 2008, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania reported a 96 percent reversal rate when naloxone was administered in 249 overdoes episodes over a three-year period.
The price of naloxone has increased significantly, making it very difficult--and in some cases, impossible--for programs across the country to purchase and distribute it. This year during International Overdose Awareness Day, the DPA is raising awareness about shortages.
Events surrounding the shortage of a different drug in New Mexico have left advocates shaking their heads. On July 26, 2012 National Public Radio ran a piece about Suboxone, a prescription drug that helps wean people off of heroine and other opiates. Because New Mexicans who need the drug are finding it so difficult to get a prescription, they're turning to the local drug dealer to fill the void.
Dr. Miriam Komaromy, director of a state-funded addiction treatment hospital in New Mexico, told NPR, "People who are treated with Suboxone are able to go back to school, they're able to go back to work, they're able to start paying taxes and taking care of their children. It's making them able to return to being a functioning member of society."
What could possibly account for the scarcity of a drug as beneficial to addicted persons as Suboxone?
Seth Williams, a nurse practitioner who treats the homeless in Albuquerque, says, "A lot of physicians are very resistant to prescribing Suboxone because they fear it will attract opiate addicts to their practices which bring with it a whole can of worms in terms of managing those clients."
The irony of this situation could render one speechless.
If advocates have their way, drug policies will shift from a criminal justice to a public health issue in every state. Someday it will be considered barbaric to lock up someone suffering from addiction. While there can be no illusions about the amount of resources and work required to make this vision a reality, raising public awareness on International Overdose Awareness Day is an important step in the right direction.