Law freeing drug antidote for public use has saved hundreds of lives

Naloxone, an antidote for opiate drug overdoses, has saved the lives of more than 1,500 people in North Carolina since 2013.
Naloxone, an antidote for opiate drug overdoses, has saved the lives of more than 1,500 people in North Carolina since 2013. AP

Officials with a statewide nonprofit dedicated to reducing drug overdose deaths say a law passed by the General Assembly in 2013 has resulted in hundreds of lives saved from drug overdoses.

The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing drug overdose deaths, says that since Aug. 1, 2013, naloxone has saved the lives of more than 1,500 people who were overdosing on heroin or other opioid drugs. The agency has partnered with about 40 police departments across the state to train officers and provide the agencies with drug overdose prevention kits.

Carrboro’s police department was the first in North Carolina to prevent a drug overdose death when an officer equipped with the antidote drug arrived at a home in late January where a man in his early 30s had overdosed on heroin.

But the largest number of overdose reversals – 1,518 – have not been done by police.

“The overwhelming number of these drug overdose reversals were among community members,” said Tessie Castillo, NCHRC’s program and advocacy coordinator. “We had an additional 24 reversals with law enforcement officers.”

The Harm Reduction Coalition received significant support in 2013 when state lawmakers passed the Good Samaritan-Naloxone Access legislation that grants someone immunity from criminal prosecution for possessing less than a gram of heroin or cocaine if that person was seeking assistance for a drug-related overdose. The law also gave non-medical providers access to naloxone to help prevent overdose deaths.

The law allows naloxone to be distributed through a special prescription written for a group of people. “Anyone who works for our agency can distribute naloxone even though we are not doctors or nurses,” Castillo said.

Since 2012, NCHRC staff members distributed more than 19,000 naloxone overdose prevention kits to people throughout the state at risk for drug overdose.

Across the state, the largest number of overdose reversals was 409 in Asheville, followed by two of the Triad cities: Greensboro, 290, and High Point, 185, according to the NCHRC.

In the Triangle, Durham reported 35 overdose reversals, followed by: Raleigh, 13; Chapel Hill, three; Knightdale and Carrboro, two each; and Wake Forest, one.

Only three law enforcement agencies in the Triangle area have partnered with the NCHRC for the naloxone program – Carrboro and Hillsborough police departments and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

Jeff Hammerstein, communications chief with Wake County Emergency Medical Services, said naloxone has been used by his agency for decades and EMS is partnered with area fire departments to render help as quickly as possible. The NCHRC program, however, was “a great opportunity in rural areas where law enforcement officers are often the first on the scene,” he said.

Jim Sughrue, a Raleigh police spokesman, said that department considered equipping its officers with naloxone in 2014, but decided against it.

“In essence...if the drugs are to be administered by a first responder, they are most appropriately injected by the trained hands of a paramedic or EMT,” Sughrue said in an email to The News & Observer. “Those medically trained personnel typically arrive at Raleigh scenes very rapidly.”

But Castillo insists equipping police officers with the life-saving medication just makes more sense.

“There are times when law enforcement is the first to arrive at a scene,” she said, “and if you have an opportunity to save a life, why not take it?”

Durham couple Michael Butler and Morgan Solis have struggled with heroin addiction and underwent the hourlong training session to learn how to administer naloxone.

Solis said her husband has saved several people since the training, including one of her friends and a woman they did not know who was overdosing one day on a city park bench.

Someone who knew Butler had naloxone yelled, “Mike, she’s OD’ing. She’s OD’ing,” Solis said.

Butler said the woman dropped to her knees and started turning blue. “I gave her a shot of naloxone, did CPR and gave her another shot,” he said. “She woke up cold and confused, but once I explained that I had saved her life, she hugged me and said thank you.”

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @tmcdona75589225