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Narcan: Lifesaver or a License to Abuse Opiates?

RX with pills

Nevada is one of the states in the country in which more people lose their lives to prescription drug use than to car accidents.

Despite this fact, however, there is an ongoing debate as to whether or not the opiate overdose “antidote,” naloxone, also known as Narcan, should be readily available to those who may need it.

Currently in Nevada, medical first responders keep Narcan on hand for the many overdose calls they receive, but there is little access to the drug for concerned friends and family members who may be immediately on hand during an overdose. These people may be able to administer the medication and save a life. Additionally, many people think that law enforcement should have the drug on hand as well since they are often first on the scene when an overdose is taking place.

Many believe the drug should be accessible to anyone who seeks it and that the cost is currently far too high to allow it to be purchased by those who need it. Others are concerned that wider access to the so-called overdose antidote would only send the message that opiate use is suddenly safe when it absolutely is not, or that the increased availability of Narcan somehow enables drug users.

Do you think Nevada should distribute naloxone more freely?

How Naloxone Works

When an opiate drug is ingested, it binds to the opiate receptors in the brain. One of the responses of the body when opiates are present is to slow breathing and heart rate. When someone has too much of an opiate in their system, or a combination of opiates and other substances that have a similar effect on the body’s system, breathing and heart rate can slow too much or stop completely. As soon as naloxone is administered, however, the drug binds to the opiate receptors in the brain and body, kicking off the opiate drug and immediately stopping its effect, saving the person’s life.

Though it sounds like a miracle drug, there are a few important things to note:

  • Naloxone only works when the drug triggering the overdose is an opiate. If other drugs are used in combination with opiates or if no opiates have been used, it will be ineffective in reversing the overdose.
  • Naloxone is only effective for a time, and taking more opiates can cause another overdose. It also processes out of the body more quickly than many drugs, so the overdose could return even after Narcan reversed it.
  • Naloxone can trigger withdrawal symptoms in someone dependent on opiates.
  • Medical care should be sought after the overdose even if naloxone is successful.
  • Naloxone cannot work if it is not administered correctly and in a timely manner.

Enabling Addiction?

There has been some concern that the increased implementation of naloxone will serve to enable a person’s addiction. However, there are a number of states across the country that have far greater access to naloxone as compared to Nevada, and there has been no indication that increased rates of addiction have resulted. In fact, the evidence shows that thousands of lives have been saved due to the use of Narcan.

It is important to note that Narcan is not an all-positive safeguard for opiate abusers. The use of naloxone in an opiate overdose situation arrests the overdose immediately, saving the person’s life, but if the person is addicted to opiate drugs, it can throw them into sudden detox, complete with intense withdrawal symptoms. It is not a pleasant experience, nor one that is sought out by people who are living with an opiate addiction.

Another concern is that wider access to naloxone will give those who are struggling with opiate addiction or experimenting with opiate drugs a false sense of security. With an antidote on standby, many are worried that people will take unnecessary risks.

It is important to note that even if there is a dose of naloxone on hand, if there is no one there to administer it or if the person arrives on the scene too late, it will be unhelpful. Increasing education about the use and nature of the drug will help to alleviate the false sense of safety that may arise with increased access to naloxone in Nevada.

Nevada and Narcan

Currently, Nevada law allows for naloxone to be sold with a prescription not only to someone who is struggling with opiate addiction but also to a third party who believes that they may be present to intervene in the event someone else overdoses. Additionally, Nevada allows nonprofit organizations to provide the drug to whomever they choose for free. The state also has a Good Samaritan law in place that protects anyone who calls 911 for emergency assistance to help someone in a state of overdose.

However, the drug still is not everywhere it can and should be to help prevent unnecessary overdoses.

Heidi Gustafson, the Director of the Foundation for Recovery, believes that increasing access to naloxone by making it available for sale over the counter would be a huge benefit to Nevada. Says Gustafson: “We can fix this whole thing by getting a standing order for the entire state through the governor’s office with the medical director signing off on it and what that would mean is you can basically walk in anywhere and get it.”

Fourteen states sell naloxone over the counter, making it available to anyone with no questions asked. Do you think that Nevada should join this group, making Narcan available over the counter?

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Clinical Editor
The editorial staff of Desert Hope Treatment Center is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have... Read More