Heroin is a death drug. It’s one of the most common, addictive and lethal drugs in the world. Anyone who has used it, or known a heroin addict, knows that an overdose is practically guaranteed. A heroin overdose can happen very quickly and, if not identified and treated, can lead to death. Medications such as Naloxone—an opioid blocker—can make the difference between whether the heroin user lives or dies.
Now, you can get Naloxone over the counter in a surprising and progressive move by the state of Utah. In a statement reported by the Salt Lake City Fox News affiliate, John Miner—executive director for the Utah Department of Health—emphasized that Naloxone is safe and legal, and “As authorized by state law, this standing order is intended to increase access to Naloxone for those who might be at risk of an overdose or who might be in a position to assist somebody at risk of an overdose.” This is a crucial step for the state, as six Utahns die of opioid overdoses every week—and Utah is fourth in the nation for heroin-related deaths.
Missed Your Shot?
In the past, Naloxone was only available at hospitals or pharmacies by prescription. The medication is administered via injection or as an inhalant, and acts almost immediately to block or reverse the action of the narcotic in the user’s brain. “It puts you straight into withdrawal,” said an anonymous heroin addict who has received Naloxone in the past. “It’s really unpleasant, but it’s better than being dead.” Sweating, shivering, nausea and vomiting, irritability and a runny nose are all side effects of reversing an overdose.
The standing order signed by Minor on behalf of the Utah Department of Health will allow anyone to buy Naloxone or Narcan (an inhalant form of the same medication) at pharmacies without a prescription. The order is an important step—not only for addicts and their families and friends—but also for the nationwide movement to de-stigmatize and treat addiction. By treating heroin addiction like an illness instead of a moral failing, lawmakers ensure that more addicts will get life-saving help at the moment they most need it.
Utah’s new standing order was the result of House Bill 240, the Opiate Overdose Response Act, which passed this year in the Utah Legislature. It was sponsored by Representative Mike Eliason. “This important policy will save lives and give people’s sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, a second chance at life and hopefully help them step out of substance abuse once and for all,” Eliason stated in a Fox 13 news report. The law is one of several passed in recent years that provide support for addicts; an earlier bill gave legal protection from criminal prosecution for drug possession to bystanders who reported an overdose.
One More Chance to Choose Life
Although detractors gonna detract, Naloxone access makes a huge difference for heroin addicts. Also, it’s not exactly a pharmaceutical free-for-all. The medication is non-habit forming and has no potential for abuse—an important factor for the population who benefits from it. Naloxone is administered as an injection into the outer thigh muscle, even through the person’s clothing in an emergency. Each injectable is single use only. However, it may take more than one dose to save the heroin user’s life. They may need another dose every two to three minutes, depending on the severity of the overdose—as well as emergency help.
The increasing price of Naloxone and Narcan—a kit with a single injectable now costs over $40—may be a barrier to people who need it. Consider that someone who is overdosing may need multiple doses to survive, plus care and attention between shots. The Harm Reduction Coalition, an organization that works to eliminate disparities in the healthcare and services addicts receive, provides an accessible step-by-step guide describing how to administer Naloxone in the hopes that users (and their friends) at least take steps towards “safe” heroin use.
In a perfect scenario, the individual giving the medication is sober, calm and experienced and able to call 911 then wait with the heroin user until help arrives. In the worst-case scenario, there is not enough medication, the person giving Naloxone is under the influence of a substance and/or has no experience with CPR or other basic first aid. However, something is better than nothing—and simply having the option available can make a difference. Since many home medical kits often include EpiPens for emergency allergy treatment, maybe Naloxone is next.
Knowing the symptoms of a heroin overdose and how to administer Naloxone can mean the difference between temporary discomfort and death. Safe, legal, timely, life-saving over the counter Naloxone is an important step forward for Utah and the community affected by heroin addiction.