Day 4: Naloxone Access and 911 Medical Amnesty (2/2)

Picking up where we left off yesterday, there’s room for optimism when it comes to naloxone access and 911 medical amnesty laws, but we still have lots of work ahead of us.

I’d like to see a recovery scene where not only is naloxone provided to opiate users in any type of treatment program, but where methadone patients are provided naloxone, with training in its use, when they enter a program. The same goes for rehab facilities. Every rehab should have naloxone on site in case of an emergency. And, of course, methadone programs, rehabs, and drug courts should be required to provide (or at least offer) naloxone and educate patients/clients about it when they are discharged from theirprograms.

All this comes at a time when opiate overdose deaths show no sign of slowing down. We have a social obligation to provide naloxone to at-risk communities and to empower those most in need, whether they’re ready for recovery or not. Groups like FSDP can make this a reality.

The naloxone access laws that have been passed in many states are a great start, but from a policy and grassroots level, we need more:

  • We need affordable access to naloxone and networks capable of getting it in the hands of those who need it most.
  • Methadone clinics must provide naloxone, even if patients have to cover the cost (which isn’t ideal and creates a barrier to treatment). It boggles my mind that methadone clinics aren’t already doing this. I’m not familiar with the internal workings of methadone clinics, but it seems that distributing naloxone to patients would reduce their legal liability if a patient does overdose and help educate the drug using community about naloxone and harm reduction.
  • Rehab programs and drug courts, especially those that impose an abstinence-only protocol, should be legally required to provide enrollees with naloxone. I believe their failure to do so is a contributing factor to many opiate overdoses. With what we now know about naloxone and the risk of overdose after a long period of abstinence, these programs should be held accountable to some degree.
  • As family members and advocates, we need to hold these institutions accountable. Not only methadone clinics, rehabs, and drug courts, but our entire legal system. The treatment provided in most state correctional systems is archaic and abysmal. It sets those who come into contact with the legal system for failure, which has given birth to an endless cycle of recidivism that can only be escaped with a strong support system and effective treatment.

On a brighter note, as of April 2015, 25 states have naloxone access laws, 19 have 911 medical amnesty laws, and 17 have both. That’s quite a disparity, and there are still quite a few states missing from the picture, but the tide is turning.

The primary argument against these laws is that they will increase use or make drug users “careless,” relying on emergency services to “save” them. This has proven not to be the case. There has been no measurable increase in misuse of opiates in states that have passed these laws, despite unsubstantiated rhetoric from some journalists and politicians.

Georgia’s laws were enacted in April 2014. Since then, the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) and Georgia Overdose Prevention (GOP) have worked to train and equip law enforcement officers (who are often first-responders and have been surprisingly supportive of the laws) with naloxone. We also distribute naloxone to at-risk communities.

As of July 2015, over 260 overdoses were reversed with naloxone distributed by AHRC and GOP. Twenty local, county, and college police forces are now equipped with naloxone, and 35 overdoses have already been reversed by law enforcement officers. Maybe not all those victims would have died, but that’s almost 300 people in Georgia alone who now have a second chance.

People use drugs for a host of reasons. Sometimes they’re self-medicating mental health issues or emotional/sexual trauma. Sometimes they have pain can’t be managed with prescription medications. Sometimes they’re using prescription pain medications as prescribed and their doctor decides to cut them off because of stricter government regulations–and so they turn to alternative sources that aren’t regulated and are, therefore, even more dangerous.

Despite the different paths they take to misusing substances, they all share one thing in common: their lives have value.

In my work with overdose prevention, I sometimes see stickers or banners that say “Every overdose victim is someone’s child.” That may be true, but that’s not the whole picture. Their life doesn’t have value because of who cares about them, but because of who they are. Drug users’ lives have value they are human.

Naloxone access and 911 medical amnesty laws have come a long way in the last few years, and the future looks promising; but as those skyrocketing overdose statistics demonstrate, it doesn’t stop here. We have a long road ahead of us.

What can we do to more effectively get naloxone into the hands of those who need it most? How do we make sure that when someone witnesses an overdose they don’t fear calling 911 because they’re not sure what the law is and they don’t want to risk going to jail?

And how do we take these laws further, to remove confusion, create consistency, and make conditions safer not only for drug users, but for sexual partners who might be at risk from disease, police who might be at risk from being stuck by infected needles, and the parents and loved ones who worry whether tonight will be the night they get that phone call and hear that they’ve lost someone they care about to an overdose that could have been prevented?

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