Should an Overdose Antidote Be Made More Accessible?

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I’ve been writing about naloxone — the antidote to overdose of heroin, oxycodone or similar drugs — for more than 10 years, most recently for TIME here. The drug has no effect on people who are not physically dependent on opioids, but it can reverse an overdose almost instantly.

Think Pulp Fiction — the scene in which John Travolta frantically revives a heroin-stricken Uma Thurman by plunging a needle in her chest. (In the film, however, he actually used the wrong drug, injected in the wrong place.) (More on Addiction Files: Recovering From Drug Addiction, Without Abstinence)

Lazarus-like reawakening scenes have played out thousands of times in the real world, and there are now pilot projects and research studies in at least 17 U.S. states that distribute naloxone to illicit drug users, pain patients who take prescriptions painkillers, and their caregivers.

The results of these programs have been overwhelmingly positive: access to naloxone typically reduces rates of death from overdose, and there’s no evidence to suggest that making naloxone available increases drug use or encourages reckless use of higher doses.

Massachusetts is the latest state to see a positive change after introducing a naloxone distribution program. As WBUR recently reported, for the first time in 15 years, the state experienced a decline in opioid overdose deaths — and the drop was greatest in cities where friends and family members were provided naloxone and trained to use it. The absolute number of overdose deaths in the state dropped by 43 between 2007 and 2008, a 7% decline. (More on What’s Lança-Perfume?)

With overdose now killing more than 22,000 people each year — more than homicide and, in some states, more than car accidents — it’s worth thinking about whether naloxone should be made available over-the-counter nationwide. No other attempt to reduce overdose deaths — from restricting painkiller prescriptions and maintaining prescription databases to increases in law enforcement — can demonstrate such a clear link to saved lives.

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