States change approach to heroin amid epidemic

March 6, 2014

A kit with naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is displayed at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City, N.J., on  Feb. 19, 2014. An overdose of opiates essentially makes the body forget to breathe. Naloxone works by blocking the brain receptors that opiates latch onto and helping the body “remember” to take in air. (Mel Evans/AP)

An alarming spike in heroin usage has left states scrambling to reduce the number of deaths caused by the powerful drug, a move that has lawmakers focusing increasingly on helping those who overdose rather than punishing them.

The jump in overdoses is alarming. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported about 669,000 Americans used heroin at least once in 2012, and nearly 3,100 died from overdoses in 2010 — a 55 percent increase from the previous year.

State Net Capitol Journal reporter Rich Ehisen takes a look at how states are reacting by trying to save lives in this month’s issue:

Law enforcement and other emergency responders say that many of these deaths could have been prevented if someone with the overdose victim would have simply got that person help. Usually that means calling 911 or taking the overdosed person to get medical attention. But it could also come in the form of giving that person the anti-overdose drug naloxone, which works to block opiates from the brain’s receptor cells. A 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control says naloxone — usually sold under the brand name Narcan and which can be injected or applied via a nasal spray — has reversed more than 10,000 opiate overdoses since its introduction in 1996.

But many overdose victims never get that chance because fear of being arrested often supersedes a drug user’s willingness to call 911. And in many states, there is no assurance that even emergency responders will be carrying naloxone when they arrive.

In recent years, 17 states and the District of Columbia have adopted “Good Samaritan” laws, which grant some immunity to those who seek medical help for an overdose victim. Eighteen states and D.C. have also given first responders the ability to administer naloxone to overdose victims.

And the number of states seeking to get help for overdosers will expand in coming weeks: Legislation has advanced in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Ohio and Utah in just the past few months. Similar bills are before legislators in seven other states, Ehisen reported.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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