Oregon has recently loosened restrictions on a drug that counteracts overdoses of opiates such as heroin. Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, blocks the receptors that opiates attach to in the body, neutralizing the effects of an overdose. Narcan can revive an OD’d user long enough to get them to more thorough treatment—its effects last only about 40 minutes. It’s essentially harmless (despite dramatic symptoms for users coming out of an OD) and can be given nasally or by injection. A Boston study found that proper use of Narcan cut overdose fatalities nearly in half.
As required by a bipartisan bill signed last January by Governor Kitzhaber, the Oregon Health Authority has developed guidelines to train people in the use of Narcan
(https://public.health.oregon.gov, under Provider and Partner Resources). Anyone who has completed the training can receive the drug from professionals licensed by the Pharmacy Board—even drug users themselves. About 17 other states have similar laws governing the use of Narcan. A federal law to provide legal protection to people who administer Narcan in good faith was proposed in early March 2014.
The Narcan bill is an example of harm reduction, the pragmatic damage-control strategy which included Portland’s needle exchange program to protect drug users from AIDS caused by shared needles. Opponents say that harm reduction strategies might encourage risky behavior by allowing drug users to feel that they have a safety net. But the fear of dying from an overdose clearly isn’t keeping Oregonians from using heroin, as heroin use rates are instead rising. It is notable that Governor Kitzhaber has been a practicing emergency physician.
By Bethany Carlson