New York City police will begin carrying large amounts of anti-opiate drugs in an effort to combat a recent spike in heroin deaths. (Reuters)

As part of a push to combat deaths from heroin and opioids, police in New York City will soon start carrying a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.

This will equip 19,500 police officers — more than half of the department’s cops — with naloxone, a drug considered the standard treatment for opioid overdoses, because it reverses the extremely slow breathing that can cause death during an overdose.

Eric T. Schneiderman, the state’s attorney general, announced this Tuesday during a news conference with William J. Bratton, commissioner of the New York Police Department.

“By providing NYPD police officers with naloxone, we are making this stunningly effective overdose antidote available in every corner of the five boroughs,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “This program will literally save lives.”

Opioids are pharmaceutical drugs (some of the better-known opioid brand names include Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin) that are killing Americans at a devastating rate despite efforts by law enforcement agencies to crack down on the “pill mills” that distribute huge quantities of the drugs.

There were more than 38,000 drug overdoses deaths in the United States in 2010, and more than 22,000 (or 60 percent) were due to pharmaceutical drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In New York, the move to equip thousands of officers with naloxone comes as part of a push Schneiderman is making to combat overdoses across the state. The goal, according to the announcement made in April, is to equip every state or local law enforcement officer with naloxone and the training to utilize it.

As part of that, Schneiderman’s program will give the New York Police Department at least $1.1 million dollars to purchase kits containing doses of naloxone, methods to administer it and instructions. It’s unclear when the officers will begin carrying the drug. This program is funded by $5 million in money seized from criminal investigations, Schneiderman’s office said.

Authorities are making naloxone more available nationwide as part of an attempt to combat the opioid overdose epidemic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a device last month that lets family members or caregivers, rather than medical or law enforcement professionals, deliver a dose of naloxone. They did that because deaths from opioids have skyrocketed since the beginning of the century, as illustrated by this chart:

In addition to the fatal overdoses, the so-called “opioid economy” has also carried with it incredible financial costs, something demonstrated in everything from hospitalizations to legal expenses.