Operation Overdose

Better dead than high


When people who have overdosed on heroin or morphine arrive in emergency rooms, they're given a drug called naloxone. Public health advocates say a new version of the drug, marketed as Narcan, can be administered outside a hospital setting, potentially saving thousands of lives.

The antidote to opiate overdose comes in the form of a nasal spray that retails for about $10. Because it isn't possible to administer Narcan in lethal doses, about 40 nonprofit groups and public health agencies across the United States have begun distributing kits containing a vial of the drug and a nasal sprayer to drug users.

The results have been encouraging. In January, Alex Kral of the research firm RTI International looked at 16 organizations distributing the kits and found that they've trained 20,950 people in how to give Narcan to an overdosing drug user. The trainees have successfully reversed 2,642 overdoses.

But not everyone is enthusiastic. Bertha Madras, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, recently told National Public Radio that she opposes the distribution programs because she believes life-threatening overdoses are an important deterrent to drug use: "Sometimes having an overdose, being in an emergency room, having that contact with a health care professional is enough to make a person snap into the reality of the situation and snap into having someone give them services." Take away the possibility of a fatal overdose, she argued, and more people will use drugs.