After New Jersey’s law protecting first responders who administer the opioid overdose antidote Narcan was signed into law in March, a free training program is helping ordinary citizens learn to administer the drug and save lives, as well as shining a spotlight on the issue of addiction. Laws protecting those using Narcan from legal consequences are becoming more common around the country and could ultimately both reduce overdose deaths and help more people overcome their addictions. Diana Weiner, a registered nurse who runs training sessions on using the drug, commented that, “Once a person is gone, there is no hope any more for them. We can open a door for that person to get into recovery—that is the ultimate goal.”
What Is Narcan?
Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, an opioid antagonist medication used to reverse the effects of opioid overdose. When somebody overdoses on an opioid drug like heroin or prescription painkillers, the drug depresses the respiratory and central nervous systems, disrupting breathing and potentially leading to death. This is a serious problem in the U.S. and many countries around the world: in 2013, of the almost 44,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., 37 percent (over 16,000) were due to opioid prescription medications.
The naloxone molecules reverse overdose by binding more strongly to the receptors in the brain that opioid drugs attach to. The naloxone literally pushes the drug molecules out of their position, reversing their effects and allowing the individual to start breathing normally again. Naloxone is non-addictive, and it doesn’t even produce an effect if the individual has no opioids in his or her system. It can be administered via injection (directly into the muscle, vein or under the skin), but it is also available in a nasal spray, making people with only limited training capable of administering it safely. The effects wear off in 20 to 90 minutes.
New Jersey’s Overdose Prevention Act and Narcan Training
New Jersey’s Overdose Prevention Act provides first responders with protection from liability when administering Narcan. This means that police officers, emergency medical technicians and those who work at needle exchange programs are protected from prosecution if they help somebody dying from an overdose. The basic aim is to reduce the number of deaths due to opioid overdose by providing assurance that those trying to save a life will not be punished as a result. The law also states that anybody who reports an overdose is protected from prosecution and expands access to the drug to anybody who has received appropriate training.
The new law has been accompanied by a free training program, which aims to both give citizens the skills they need to safely administer Narcan and raise awareness about addiction as a whole. The sessions are being given across New Jersey and are open to all residents, whether they are concerned about a loved one or just want to be able to help in an emergency situation. Narcan kits are given to everybody who completes the training.
A recent training session in Salem County has already been credited with saving three lives there. This underscores the potential of Narcan for helping those in need, as the county’s chief of detectives Brian Facemyer commented, “It’s definitely a lifesaver.”
Saving Lives and Helping People Find Treatment
Registered nurse Weiner, who ran the Salem County training session, is very positive about the drug but underscores its limitations. “It’s critical for people to understand they need to get emergency care, beyond the reversal,” she says. “This is only a quick fix. It’s only going to potentially save the life of someone using.”
This addresses the core limitation of Narcan: it isn’t a solution in and of itself; it merely offers a second chance. The truly important thing isn’t helping more people to be able to administer Narcan, but helping those people saved from overdose see the risks they’re exposing themselves to and help them find treatment. That’s why Weiner and others operating the training programs also spend time raising awareness about addiction and the importance of getting loved ones and those in need into treatment. In short, Narcan stops you from dying, but it doesn’t do anything to stop you from having another overdose if you keep using.
A Second Chance for Those Struggling With Addiction
So Narcan isn’t the “magic bullet” solution to the rash of opioid overdoses gripping the U.S., but as Weiner argues, it provides a critical second chance at getting better. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease, and for that reason alone, anything we can do to offer a second chance to those suffering from it is a valuable strategy. It’s entirely possible that somebody saved by Narcan will overdose again the very next week, but without the widespread use of Narcan, the other possibility—that the near-overdose will serve as a wakeup call and he or she will go into treatment—wouldn’t even have the chance to become reality. Narcan helps us save lives, and with some encouragement and awareness-raising, it could help more opioid abusers get into treatment and tackle the underlying problems that lead to addiction.