Teens Dying From Heroin Overdoses Because They Fear Arrest: Why We Should Distribute Naloxone

Naloxone can be considered a miracle drug. Sold under the trademark Narcan, the life-saving medication reverses overdoses from opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers. Naloxone is so quick and effective that a patient treated with the drug often appears to come “back to life.”  

But drug users without access to the drug are dying. 

Last month, 17-year-old Stephanie Chiakias was playing video games at a friend’s house, when a heroin overdose caused her to pass out. Nobody called for help, and she died. Her father, Ken Chiakas, told CBS the image plays in his mind, “All the time.”

Chiakias died in McHenry County, Chicago, where 122 drug overdose deaths occurred from 2009 to 2012. In nearby Will County, also plagued by heroin, another family is mourning the preventable death of their son, Ryan Werner.

According to CBS, Werner, a student at Neuqua Valley High School, “was surrounded by people when he overdosed but no one called 911 for help.”

“So they basically left him there to die,” a teen said in a student-produced documentary about heroin.

An undercover police officer in the Chicago suburbs told CBS that users fear calling for help will get them arrested for drugs. In some cases, suppliers of an overdose victim’s drugs have even been charged with manslaughter.

Youths in Chicago, however, should no longer fear arrest when reporting their friends’ overdose. Last year, Illinois passed a Good Samaritan Law, which gives drug-offense immunity to life-saving 911 callers. CBS said that at least three people have been saved this year, “thanks to the Good Samaritan law.”

Illinois is one of 12 states that have enacted this kind of law. The most recent state to do so is New Jersey. This week, lawmakers there agreed on a compromise that, while narrower than the original proposal, would provide legal immunity to anyone who calls 911 to report an overdose, except people who have violated a restraining order.  It also expands naloxone access by granting immunity to non-health professionals who administer naloxone, as well as other individuals who administer the overdose antidote during an emergency, so long as the person believed in good faith that the naloxone recipient was experiencing an opioid overdose.

After the vote, Paul Ressler of Hamilton, New Jersey told reporters he dedicated himself to "saving the lives of other young people and helping families struggling with the disease of addiction," since his 22-year-old son, Corey, died in 2010.

"When I took possession of his belongings, there was a 911 call attempted on his cell phone," Ressler said. "When I spoke to a couple of people there, the ones who tried to call it in said they were afraid because they would have been arrested — there were a lot of drugs around. If this law was in effect, potentially my son could be alive today."

New Jersey governor Chris Christie will now review the compromise. A spokesman for the governor said, "Governor Christie is grateful that his concerns on this important issue were heard and incorporated in a bipartisan way," adding that, "We look forward to reviewing the reworked bill in its final form."

Still, encouraging spectators to an overdose to call 911, and granting some immunity to naloxone providers, is far from the best we can do to expand access to naloxone. Youths may not understand protections the law gives them while dialing 911, and may fear arrest regardless. The most direct way to expand naloxone access may be putting the drug in the hands of opioid users themselves, as well as friends or family. A 2013 study on the effectiveness of naloxone distribution programs that dispensed the drugs to addicts in Massachusetts found a 27-46% reduction in overdose deaths in towns with a distribution center.  

The drug, which is non-addictive and safe, can be easily administered (intranasally, for example) by anyone with the most basic level of training. Naloxone could be prescribed to addicts looking to stay safe, or sold over-the-counter, or handed out for free.

Of course, making a prescription drug more available also means making it more affordable, and the pharmaceutical company behind naloxone appears to have very little interest in doing that.


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