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Simple change can save Alaskan lives, reduce alarming toll of heroin

  • Author: Sen. Ellis
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published July 26, 2015

Heroin is killing Alaskans at alarming rates, and unless we do something to address the problem now, it will only get worse. Heroin-related deaths in Alaska tripled between 2008 and 2013. In 2012, the rate of heroin overdose deaths was 42 percent higher than the national rate. Alaskans are no strangers to the heroin and opiate abuse crisis killing our friends, family and neighbors. We read reports weekly of heroin seizures, ruined lives, overdose deaths and grieving families. Recently, we read that heroin is taking an unprecedented toll on Alaska ("Public health officials find steep rise in Alaska heroin deaths, overdoses," ADN, July 14). The article highlighted findings of a new report by the Division of Public Health that every Alaska public official should read, entitled "Health Impacts of Heroin Use in Alaska."

We've seen this crisis escalating for over a decade. Former Sen. Fred Dyson and I frequently sounded the alarm over the years that the increasing prescription opiate abuse combined with a steady stream of cheap heroin flowing into Alaska, would result in an unprecedented number of opiate addicts and overdose. That time has come.

Although Alaska is one of the hardest hit by the heroin epidemic, we are not the first. That means we have a tested roadmap to fight this killer. One tool, proven to dramatically reduce the number of heroin overdoses, is wider access to the lifesaving drug Narcan, which can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. Twenty-seven states have already enacted legislation to get Narcan into the hands of those who need it by removing civil liabilities for doctors who preventatively prescribe Narcan to addicts, and for friends and family who administer it during an overdose. I want Alaska to be the 28th state to add this life-saving tool to our toolbox.

With the support of the Alaska Medical Association, last session I introduced Senate Bill 23 to make Narcan more widely available. SB23 passed the Senate 19 to 1, with 9 Republicans and Democrats signing on as co-sponsors. It is imperative this bill move quickly through the House next session so we can get this lifesaving drug into the hands of those who need it.

What is Narcan?

Narcan is a medication called an opioid antagonist, and it is used to counter the effects of opioid overdose. Narcan, much like an EpiPen for severe allergic emergencies, comes in the form of a nasal spray or is injected in a muscle or vein. Narcan is both safe and effective. For more than three decades, it has been used by emergency medical personnel to reverse overdoses. Data show this life-saving drug can be administered safely by ordinary citizens with little or no formal training. Narcan has zero effect on someone if they do not have opiates in their system, it is not a controlled substance, and has no abuse potential. Given the safety and effectiveness of Narcan, many public health advocates question why it is not available over the counter. I point this out because its status as a prescription medication does not mean it is dangerous or difficult to use. In Italy, for example, this drug has been available over the counter since the 1980s without any reported negative consequences.

Based largely on changes to state law, at least 188 community-based overdose prevention programs now distribute Narcan across the county. As of 2010, those programs had provided Narcan to over 50,000, resulting in over 10,000 overdose reversals. A recent evaluation of one such program in Massachusetts, which trained over 2,900 potential overdose bystanders, reported that opioid overdose death rates were significantly reduced in communities that implemented the program.

Narcan will save lives when we pass SB23. It is important to note that SB23 is not a replacement for substance abuse treatment. Drug enforcement and rehabilitation are also critical components of the fight against addiction. SB23 simply gives doctors and overdose bystanders the peace of mind that they will not be held civilly liable for doing the right thing, and perhaps more importantly, it gives families and loved ones a life-saving tool against the heartbreak of heroin overdose.

SB23 is supported by The Alaska State Medical Association, The Alaska Police Department Employees Association, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, the Alaska Mental Health Board and Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the Narcotic Drug Treatment Center, and countless families and addicts who have had their lives devastated by heroin. Please join us.

Sen. Johnny Ellis represents District J in the Alaska Senate, including Downtown Anchorage, Fairview, Mountain View and Airport Heights.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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