Drugs

Why Every State Should Let Law Enforcement Use Lifesaving Overdose Prevention Drug Naloxone

Every person who dies from an overdose was someone's son or daughter, sister or brother.

Lieutenant Tanya Smith of Georgia rushed to the scene of a heroin overdose unlike any other in her law enforcement career in February 2012. Kneeling to check the victim’s pulse, her heart sank as she gazed into the ashen face of her own daughter.

Paramedics injected 19-year-old Taylor Smith with naloxone, a medication that reverses overdose from opioid drugs such as heroin or prescription painkillers. After two agonizing minutes, Taylor gasped for breath.

Naloxone is a safe, non-narcotic drug that has been used in emergency rooms for decades and can reverse opiate overdoes in just minutes. Smith recalls the power of this lifesaving drug just as Nathan Deal, governor of her home state, considers signing a bill this week that would increase public access to naloxone and pave the way for law enforcement departments to equip their officers with the drug. As police often reach the scene of an overdose before an ambulance, they have a unique opportunity to administer the antidote in the precious minutes before paramedics arrive. Georgia is the only state currently awaiting governor signature on a naloxone bill, and if the governor signs, it will become the 19th state to approve such a bill. 

“Naloxone gives law enforcement one more tool to save a life,” said Smith. Thinking of her daughter, she added, “It also gives some people one more day to fight their addiction.”

Just a few years ago, the concept of enlisting law enforcement to reverse drug overdose was given barely a thought. In 2004 the New Mexico state police, grappling with the highest overdose rate in the country, had proposed such an initiative, but it was shelved over controversy surrounding the use of syringes to inject naloxone. Over the next few years, a smattering of small departments in Massachusetts and New York launched programs that deliver naloxone through an intranasal spray instead of a syringe. At the same time, 18 states passed laws that shield residents from liability if they use naloxone to save a life. Now, thanks to a combination of protective laws and the success of existing programs, the idea of police using naloxone to prevent overdose death has started to spread.  

Lt Detective Pat Glynn initiated one of the first naloxone pilot projects in Quincy, Massachusetts. Between October 2010 and March 7, 2014, Quincy police have reported 230 successful overdose reversals.

“Without a doubt, the majority [of the victims] would have died." Glynn said. "Without exaggeration I have fielded over 100 calls within the past week from law enforcement departments around the country inquiring about the [naloxone] program and how to start their own." 

Law enforcement naloxone programs are becoming increasingly popular nationwide, but in some parts of the country, resistance from emergency medical services to allow police to perform medical procedures has delayed or even scuttled the creation of these programs.

Detective Jonathan Poplin of Wilmington, North Carolina, a paramedic for 10 years, is growing increasingly frustrated over the roadblocks he is encountering to implement a naloxone program in his department. Despite a new law passed in 2013 to allow law enforcement to give naloxone, when he approached his county's EMS system for assistance, the EMS administration, while supportive, had concerns and asked the state Office of EMS for guidance. Now the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services is requesting the NC Medical Board make changes that would require law enforcement officers across the state to administer naloxone under their county's EMS system's authority.  Though this may make the process smoother in some cases, it adds a complexity that the law passed last year specifically avoided. There are also concerns of whether the police department's insurance carrier will allow the drug's use.

“I have used naloxone dozens of times and understand how it works and that it works well,” says Poplin. “I also understand—and clearly legislatures and medical professionals across the country agree—that it is a medication that can be given with minimal training by non-certified personnel with literally lifesaving benefits.”

Captain Chris Atack of the Carrboro Police, also in North Carolina, agrees. “I understand concerns that a police naloxone program blurs the line between EMS and law enforcement,” he says, “but to me, training officers on naloxone use is the same as teaching them CPR. It’s a simple, lifesaving activity that an officer can perform before paramedics arrive.”           

Carrboro officers are scheduled to be trained in naloxone use by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in April, and Chris Atack hopes to have a program up and running by July 2014. If he succeeds, it would be one of the first police naloxone programs in the state.

“If we can save one life in 10 years it’s worth it because the investment in training and equipment is so minimal,” he says.

The nationwide rash of overdose deaths from prescription pills and heroin might explain why so many police and sheriff departments are eager to launch naloxone programs. Some predict that naloxone use will one day become standard for all officers, which goes to show the increasing visibility of the overdose problem and law enforcement’s willingness to consider solutions that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable. 

“Beyond financial constraints, there is no excuse anymore for departments to not train their personnel on naloxone and issue it to their officers,” says Poplin. “Many people dismiss the victims of overdoses as addicts and ne'er do wells; however, every person who dies from an overdose was someone's son or daughter, sister or brother. There is no reason to not try and prevent these deaths.”

Lt. Tanya Smith of Georgia would certainly agree. Six months ago her daughter Taylor overdosed for a second time. Her body was found dumped by the side of the road near a trailer.

For parents who fear the loss of their children from overdose, naloxone offers a second chance, as Gretchen Bergman, executive director of PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) points out in a recent Huffington Post article. But for law enforcement, it also offers the opportunity to do what they do best: save lives.

Tessie Castillo is the advocacy and communications coordinator at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. She writes a regular column for the Huffington Post.