California Expands Access to Lifesaving Opiate Overdose Drug

In 2008, California Governor Jerry Brown approved a pilot program in seven counties across the state that allowed the administering of naloxone by non-medical personnel. Naloxone is used to reverse the effects of opiate overdose.  Discovered in the 1960s, it was approved in 1971 by the Food and Drug Administration. It is available in thousands of emergency rooms and hospitals, as well as in ambulances.

With the new law, health care professionals and addiction counselors could administer it in case of emergencies. Family members of drug users, as well as users themselves, could obtain a prescription from their doctor or an addiction treatment program. The law also protected them from civil and criminal prosecution in case anything went wrong.

Studies have shown there is little risk of laypersons administering the drug.

By 2011, the United States was in the midst of a public health crisis. The abuse of prescription opioid painkillers, such as Oxycotin, by an increasingly younger crowd was deemed responsible for 11,000 deaths annually. Prescribed for pain, many would snort or inject the drugs to chase a high similar to heroin. Millions more would overdose over the course of the epidemic.

The fact that many more didn’t die is attributed to the life saving antidote.

In the early years of the opioid painkiller epidemic, users were not making it to the hospital in time. As the trend entered into the younger population, including teenagers, family members would often not be aware of the addiction until it was too late. By 2004, opioid  painkiller overdose was a leading cause of death in the United States.

In communities that were hardest hit, addiction specialists and parents pushed for access to the drug without a prescription. There was no risk of it being abused as it is non-addictive, as well as non-toxic. There was no major training needed as it is easy to administer intravenously or through a pre-filled applicator through the nose. For families that had known users in their home, having it available would make the difference between life and death.

From 1996-2010, it is estimated that community-based programs reversed more than 10,000 overdoses using naloxone.

Earlier this year, Gov. Brown expanded the pilot program to the entire state. Last month, it was expanded to allow family members and users to obtain naloxone from pharmacists – without a prescription. This expands distribution and access across the state. The move was praised by addiction specialists and families.

It comes just as the abuse of an old-school opiate is on the rise.

In 2011, federal and state officials across the country cracked down on the illegal distribution of opioid painkillers. While most of the nation had implemented a pharmacy tracking program for painkiller prescriptions which limited access, Florida remained unregulated and became known as the painkiller capital. Ninety-eight percent of all painkiller prescriptions were written by doctors in Florida. Pressured by the federal government and law enforcement, Florida passed legislation which essentially shut down the network of opioid prescriptions.

Within a year, the number of prescriptions written in the state had decreased 97 percent.

As access to painkillers decreased, the same suburban kids that abused painkillers started using heroin. As prescription opiates became harder to get, they also became more expensive on the black market. Heroin was relatively cheaper. According to the National Drug Use and Health, heroin use increased nearly 80 percent between 2007 and 2012.

The recent high profile celebrity deaths due to heroin overdoses have garnered national attention to the addiction. Many of the same communities that were suffering the effects of painkiller addiction are seeing heroin use in epidemic proportions. These communities are generally smaller, suburban and white.

Now, more families in California have access to a lifesaving antidote, increasing the chances their loved ones will survive the road to recovery.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

62 comments

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