Our view: Rise in heroin use spurs need for life-saving option
It's hard to imagine anyone who would question giving a life-saving drug to a person on the cusp of death. If the choice is watching a person die or providing a single dose to reverse the person's fate, the decision would seem obvious.
But the decision becomes more complicated for some based on whose life is being saved.
That's where the argument against naloxone comes in for some police officers and other first responders who have the new opportunity to provide a life-saving drug to people overdosing on heroin. Naloxone is a heroin antidote more commonly known by the brand name Narcan. The medication counters the effects of an opioid overdose and is seen as a way to prevent some heroin-related deaths if it is administered in time.
Cody, a 23-year-old client at Minnesota Teen Challenge in Rochester, knows the effects of naloxone. A former heroin user, he remembers losing consciousness after taking the drug, only to wake up in a hospital, where he was told he had been given the life-saving medication. He said the naloxone removed all effects of the heroin that had rendered him unconscious.
Legislation passed this year will allow Minnesota police officers and others to carry the drug under a standing doctor's order on Aug. 1, meaning they can be trained to spot the signs of an overdose and give a dose of Narcan without needing to wait for health professionals to arrive. Rep. Tina Liebling, who was one of the authors of the measure, said supporting it was an obvious choice. The Rochester DFLer said the consequence of not supporting it meant more people would die because of heroin overdoses.
And, since Narcan has no known side effects if administered to someone not suffering an overdose, she said there are no ill consequences faced by first responders who are doing their best to save lives. "There is no downside to using it," Liebling said. "You can't hurt anybody."
Capt. Brian Howard of the Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force said while having another way to help save lives is a good thing, a chief concern for law enforcement agencies will be setting policies and training to ensure the drug is administer properly within agencies opting to carry it.
But some law enforcement officials worry Narcan sends the wrong message. They see the potential for heroin users to become more willing to risk an overdose, knowing there is an improved chance someone will be able to save them. Additionally, critics say they doubt if being pulled back from the edge of death is enough to turn a heroin addict around.
Cody, who is in his fourth month at Teen Challenge, acknowledges it wasn't enough for him. After being saved by a dose of Narcan, he continued to use heroin. It wasn't until later that he entered treatment for his addiction.
But, without Narcan, Cody might not have lived to see the life-changing event that led him to treatment. He might have become another statistic — one of the 98 people who died from heroin overdoses in 2013.
His family and friends could be among the countless number of Minnesotans who are grieving the loss of loved ones who used just a little too much heroin – one fatal time. His parents could be among the rising number of area residents who are wondering if they could have done something to help before the drug took their child's life.
Sure, the increased availability of such a life-saving drug could lead some risk takers to continue pushing the limits. But does that mean it should be locked away in a hospital or ambulance, only to be given to those who survive long enough to receive treatment? Shouldn't we as a community want to see police officers and other emergency responders given the tools to save people in peril?
With the new law taking effect in one month, we encourage all law enforcement agencies and other first responders to start serious discussions now about having naloxone available to anyone that may be the first on the scene of a heroin overdose. We expect those discussions, while perhaps heated at times, can have only one compassionate outcome. We expect they will lead to more access to naloxone in police vehicles and other rescue units.
We believe it will send a message that our community cares about its residents — all of them.