One of the most alarming statistics of the current decade is the number of deaths from prescription drug overdose. In North Carolina, overdose rates have tripled since 2000 and continue to rank above the national average. Last year we lost over 1,000 lives to preventable death from overdose. It’s insane that no legislator has come forward to propose simple, cost-effective solutions to the epidemic. Overdose rates could easily be slashed through comprehensive overdose prevention legislation at no cost to the state.
With today’s budget crises throughout the nation, it’s important to consider the cost-effectiveness and the regulatory burden of new legislation. But in the case of drug overdose, simple proposals exist that are free and impose no new governmental intrusion. In fact, they take the government out. Access to Narcan is a good example. Narcan, or naloxone, is a safe, effective antidote to opiate drug overdose. Long used by paramedics, it blocks opiate receptors to the brain and can reverse a potentially fatal drug overdose within minutes. Narcan cannot be abused or used to get high, and it is safe to administer even by people with no medical background. But barriers to its access remain.
Many doctors are afraid to prescribe Narcan to patients who use opiate painkillers over concerns about “third party liability.” Since a person experiencing an opiate overdose is unconscious and can’t administer the antidote themselves, medical providers fear civil liability if the drug is administered by someone other than the patient to whom it was prescribed. Additionally, friends or family of a person experiencing an overdose may be afraid to administer it over the same liability fears.
These barriers are easy enough to remove. We can pass cost-free legislation to end the burden of civil liabilities for people who prescribe or administer Narcan in good faith to save a life. Narcan has no side effects, other than producing withdrawal symptoms in opiate users. It has no effect whatsoever on a non-opiate user.
Project Lazarus out in Wilkes County started educating doctors about Narcan and encouraging them to prescribe it to patients on opiate painkillers. At the time, Wilkes County had the third highest rate of drug overdose death in the United States. Since then, overdose deaths have dropped by 69 percent and Project Lazarus, in addition to gaining national recognition for their work, received a grant to expand the program statewide. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is another great nonprofit that educates the community on overdose prevention at no cost.
Another cost-effective solution is to pass 911 Good Samaritan laws that encourage people to call emergency services if they witness an overdose. The 911 Good Samaritan laws grant limited immunity for drug or paraphernalia charges to people at the scene of an overdose, including the caller, the victim, and anyone else present. These laws do not protect criminals with serious convictions or records, but they do allow people with simple possession some breathing room to focus on saving a life. This law is also cost-free and takes some of the government intrusion out of people’s lives.
In the wake of so many tragedies and mass killings in our country, we could all use a few more Good Samaritans. Let’s pass this law in North Carolina. It costs nothing. It will help curb the overdose epidemic. It will save lives. And that is something we should all be able to agree on.
Stephanie Almeida, CSAC — Franklin, N.C.
(Certified Substance Abuse Counselor)