Drug War

Naloxone Reverses Drug Overdoses, Saves 10,000 Lives

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Trainspotting, overdose, gurney, Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan Kenobi

Since 1996, naloxone has reversed 10,171 drug overdoses, saving thousands of lives, according to a new study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Naloxone hydrochloride (also known as Narcan) stops an overdose on opiates and helps restore regular breathing and consciousness. Once injected, naloxone can reverse an overdose as quickly as under a minute. Since naloxone is an opiate antagonist, it's not effective to stop an overdose on cocaine, alcohol, or benzodiazepines.

First approved by the FDA in the 1970s, naloxone was used only in emergency rooms and ambulances. But thanks to community-based programs, the drug has seen wider distribution in 15 states and Washington, D.C. According to the CDC, there is a direct correlation between harm reduction policies and saving lives:

Nineteen (76.0%) of the 25 states with 2008 drug overdose death rates higher than the median and nine (69.2%) of the 13 states in the highest quartile did not have a community-based opioid overdose prevention program that distributed naloxone.

Nationwide, drug overdose deaths have tripled since 1990. In 2008, there were over 36,000 drug overdose deaths. This actually topped car crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths. That same year, more than 20,000 people died from a prescription painkiller overdose. Nevertheless, Eliza Wheeler, one of the authors of the report and program manager at the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), was ultimately optimistic:

Thousands of fatal overdoses occur every year, but this report shows that we can reduce overdose deaths by giving members of the community the right information, training, and tools.

Indeed, naloxone has enormous potential to save even more lives: Almost three-quarters of the drug overdoses in 2008 were from opiates. Because of this, Sharon Stancliff, the medical director of the HRC, wants naloxone to be sold over-the-counter. Time magazine explains the reasoning:

The drug is safe and nonaddictive and it cannot be misused (indeed, it blocks the action of opioids, so it produces the opposite of a high), and so the more places it is available, the more likely that it will be within reach when needed. The possibility of a wider market would also be likely to spur more manufacturing of the drug.

To further stop overdoses, more states could pass "Good Samaritan" laws. This medical amnesty legally protects those who call 911 and report a drug overdose. So far, only New York, New Mexico, Connecticut, Illinois, and Washington state have enacted Good Samaritan laws.

Reason on drug policy. For more on harm reduction, check out the Drug Policy Alliance and the Harm Reduction Coalition.