An OTC Lifesaver
If you’ve spent any time in or around the world of drug addiction then the name Narcan should ring some bells. It’s a lifesaving “overdose antidote,” which can completely clear the body of opioid molecules in minutes. It’s also been at the center of some serious legislative controversy lately.
Even mentioning Narcan, a brand name of the opioid antagonist naloxone, inspires fevered discussion. Proponents of this drug argue that it offers invaluable medical benefits to those struggling with heroin or pain pill addiction. Opponents argue that it allows addicts to avoid consequences of their addiction, that it allows them to continue using with impunity.
Adding fuel to the fire, bills for greater access to Narcan have been in and out of state and federal legislators for the past several years. States like New Jersey, hit particularly hard by the painkiller turned heroin epidemic, have increased access to naloxone dramatically. Well, in late 2014 another state followed suit.
In August 2014, CVS Pharmacy announced that it would soon make Narcan available without a prescription in all sixty of its Rhode Island locations.
A Battlefield of Overdose & Death
Rhode Island is typically thought of as a quaint, New England state. In fact, it’s often thought to embody everything that makes the Northeast a wonderful place to live – quiet towns, friendly neighbors, a relatively low cost of living, and scenic landscapes.
While all of this is true, it’s also in the midst of a deadly struggle with prescription painkillers and heroin. Rhode Island, like the rest of the United States, is besieged by the abuse of opioids and things have only gotten worse in the past six years.
137 people died in 2009 as a result of drug overdose. In 2010, that number jumped to 152. In 2011, it was 172. In 2012, it was 182. By 2013, the number of accidental overdose deaths had risen to a shocking 231. It was clear something needed to be done and fast. (All figures taken from Rhode Island’s offical website)
Enter Narcan. Although the chemical naloxone has been around for quite some time, it’s only recently gained popularity. States across the country have been implementing laws that make Narcan easier to obtain. Their reasoning is simple – it’s better for someone to overdose and receive naloxone than it is for someone to overdose and die.
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Well, Does it Work?
Although this line of thinking isn’t without its critics, it has, generally speaking, worked. While Rhode Island overdose death rates are still astronomically high (approximately 238 in 2014), lives are being saved left and right.
In 2014 alone, EMS responders administered between 118 and 159 doses of Narcan per month. That’s over 1,200 lives saved! It’s safe to say fatality rates would be much higher with this literal lifesaving chemical.
What about Narcan and other naloxone formulas being available without a prescription? Is this a good thing or not? Well, again, the answer is more complicated than simply being labeled good or bad.
Increasing access to Narcan for at risk populations (current or former IV opioid addicts) has led to fewer overdoses. The numbers in Rhode Island, and many other states like Washington, California, Connecticut, and New Jersey, back this up. However, some believe it’s led to complacency among addicts. That is to say that relatively open access to the drug may discourage addicts from attempting to get sober.
While this makes surface level sense, let’s dig a bit deeper. Does the availability of insulin make current or potential diabetics less likely to take care of themselves? Does the availability of cancer fighting drugs make those receiving them less likely to take other positive health measures?
Although those are rather extreme examples, the logic is the same. Access to a drug does not mean that drug is the only line of defense against a disease. In fact, many harm reduction projects (think syringes exchanges or free health clinics) encourage those receiving Narcan to seek professional help.
Again, there are pro’s and con’s to Narcan being available without a prescription. However, it seems to be having a positive impact on the world of addiction medicine. After all, a saved life is a saved life.