Noting that heroin overdoses kill more people in Massachusetts each year than firearms, Dr. Peter Moyer, medical director of Boston’s fire, police and emergency services, applauded the state’s decision to offer addicts an overdose reversal kit. The package contains two nasal doses of naloxone, known as Narcan, a drug that reverses heroin overdose and saves uncounted lives (many victims of heroin overdose never see a hospital) when administered quickly enough. “It’s a remarkably safe drug,” said Dr. Moyer. “I’ve used gallons of it in my life to treat patients.”
Predictably, other health authorities aren’t so sure. “You give them the Narcan, where is their motivation to change?” said Michael Gimbel, director of substance abuse for Baltimore County, Maryland. “Giving Narcan might give them that false sense that ‘I can live forever,’ which is not what we want,” he told the Associated Press. Although similar programs have met with success in Chicago and New York City, the Massachusetts program is not supported by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House. Drug Policy officials do not like the idea of addicts medically treating other addicts. Other officials argue against distribution of the kits, as they have frequently argued against needle distribution programs—in the belief that distributing the Narcan antidote will encourage heroin use and delay treatment for addicts.
Almost no one disputes the fact that heroin is currently popular throughout New England due to low prices and a surge in demand. “It’s the perfect storm in all the wrong directions. We talk about availability, price and potency,” said Kevin Norton of CAB Health & Recovery Services, one of the state-designated Narcan overdose kit providers.
The state-sponsored overdose kits were first tried in a pilot program in Boston, where Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach decided to go statewide after the kits were used to save 66 overdoses in the Boston area. “Narcan’s been around for a long time,” according to Cindy Champagne, director of nurses at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center. Nonetheless, Champagne expressed some reservations about the drug “being out there for addicts to use,” noting its powerful effects and the rapid reversal of overdose, which leaves some addicts “combative.”
But Joanne Newton of the Seven Hills Behavioral Health Center of New Beford, another of the administrators of the program chosen by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) cautioned that the program is carefully regulated, and will not increase the likelihood of addict overdoses. “ There will be protocols and policies,” she said. “We’ll have to see what DPH’s plan is.”
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