Posts Tagged ‘Harm reduction coalition’

Naloxone Controversy


It’s a misleading title, because most people support naloxone use. At this point…there’s not much controversy. Unless you live in Maine.

Their governor, Paul LePage, vetoed a bill, passed by their State House in 2013, that allowed naloxone to become more widely available. He called the life-saving medication and “escape,” and “An excuse to stay addicted.”

Naloxone is an escape in a way – an escape from death.

However, before learning about naloxone, I had some concerns too. For example, would having naloxone available for an overdose encourage people to use more illicit opioids? Would addicts be more likely to push then envelop of safety in the quest for the ultimate opioid high?

The answer appears to be no, at least according to some small studies. One of them was a study of intravenous heroin addicts in San Francisco, who received an eight-hour training in how to prevent heroin overdose, how to give CPR, and how to administer naloxone. [1]

These twenty-four study subjects were followed prospectively for six months. These addicts witnessed a total of twenty opioid overdoses. All of the overdose victims were said to be cyanotic, unresponsive, and have no respirations. The addicts in the study, who had received the eight hour training, administered naloxone to 75% of the overdose victims they encountered. They performed CPR on 80% of the overdose victims, and 95% of the overdose victims had one or the other of the two interventions performed. All of these overdose victims survived.

The study did not show an increase in the incidence of opioid overdose. In fact, the addicts in the study used less heroin over the study period, even though no part of the study was dedicated to encouraging the reduction of illicit opioid use or to entering addiction treatment.

Granted, the study participants had to be motivated in order to spend eight hours doing the training, so maybe they were already motivated to cut down or stop using drugs. But on the other hand, about half of these study subjects were homeless, a demographic many in our society would assume is poorly equipped or motivated to help anyone else. Yet they demonstrated a remarkable willingness and capability to help peers dying from overdoses.

Emergency medical services were called in only two of the overdoses. When study subjects were asked why they did not call emergency medical services, half said it was due to fear of police involvement and arrest. Twenty-five percent said no phone was available, and 25% said they didn’t see a need for EMS.

This information underscores the importance of Good Samaritan laws. In the broadest sense, Good Samaritan laws protect a person who tries to help another person from civil or criminal penalties.

Initially these laws were passed to protect doctors from being sued if they attempt to save the life of someone who is not a patient. For example, if I witness a man choking to death in a restaurant and I rush over to do the Heimlich maneuver, I can’t be sued if I break his ribs in my effort to get him to hack up the meatball wedged in his trachea.

Good Samaritan laws, as they apply to drug overdoses, give some degree of immunity to people who try to intervene to save another person’s life from drug overdose.

For example, in my state, our Good Samaritan law says if a person seeks medical assistance for an individual suffering from a drug overdose, that person will not be prosecuted for possession of less than one gram of cocaine or one gram of heroin. The bill has provisions for doctors to be able to prescribe naloxone to any person at risk of having an opioid-related overdose. Doctors can prescribe naloxone to the friends or family members of a person at risk for an overdose, even if that person is not a patient of the doctor. This is called third-party prescribing; the law hacks through red tape of previous regulations that said doctors could only prescribe naloxone for their own patients. And our Good Samaritan law says a private citizen can administer naloxone to an overdose victim, and so long as they use reasonable care, will be immune to civil or criminal liability.

Not all states allow third-party prescribing of naloxone or even Good Samaritan laws. Look on the map at the top of this blog, and if you live in a state that hasn’t yet passed these laws, write your congressmen. This is such an important issue, and naloxone needs to be more widely prescribed. (I don’t know why Maine is colored on the map as if they have naloxone laws).

Who should get a naloxone prescription? Opioid addicts should obviously receive kits, and the friends and family members of these addicts. I believe it should be considered for any patient prescribed opioids, including patients on opioids for chronic pain, and patients prescribed methadone or buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction.

Kits should certainly be provided for high-risk patients – opioid addicts recently released from jail or detox units.

I wish I could prescribe kits for all of my patients on methadone or buprenorphine now, but aside from the program where I work in Wilkes County, it’s not yet easily available.

But it will be soon. In April 2014, the FDA approved a commercially available naloxone auto-injector marketed under the name Evzio. This kit, which delivers .4mg of naloxone intramuscularly or subcutaneously, has both written and voice instructions. Each kit contains two doses, and it can be administered through clothing. This kit should be available in pharmacies this summer.

Until then, there are other options. Doctors can call a local pharmacy to see if they would be interested in making a kit for sale to patients. At a minimum, it would include one or two vials of naloxone, a needle and syringe, rubber gloves and alcohol wipes to cleanse skin prior to injecting. This would be a relatively cheap kit to make, but questions persist about who would pay for it: the patient, their health insurance company…
The Harm Reduction Coalition has been instrumental in providing intramuscular naloxone kits to anyone who wants one. They have contacted OTPs in my state to ask if they can hand out kits and other information, so that’s another possible source for a kit. If you are reading this article and want a naloxone kit for either yourself or a loved one, please contact either the Harm Reduction Coalition at:
This wonderful organization does other good works besides distributing naloxone kits, and it’s worth checking out their website.

At the opioid treatment program where I work in Wilkes County, NC, Project Lazarus has paid all or part of the cost of intranasal naloxone kits for our patients who enter treatment. Thus far I know of three lives saved by these kits. None of them were our patients; our patients used their kits to save other people.

I’ve written about Project Lazarus before in my blog. This organization, founded by Reverend Fred Brason, has implemented ongoing measures that reduced the opioid overdose death rates not only in Wilkes County, but probably statewide as well. Other states have started programs modeled on Project Lazarus. You can go to this website for more information: I know that in the past, Project Lazarus has been willing to send a naloxone kit to anyone who has a need for it, so that’s another possible source for a kit.

I predict it will become easier to get relatively cheap naloxone kits from pharmacies everywhere as the momentum behind naloxone availability grows.

1. Seal et al, “Naloxone distribution and cardiopulmonary resuscitation training for injection drug users to prevent heroin overdose death: A pilot intervention study,” Journal of Urban Health, June 2005; 82(2): 303-311.




Medical journals, news outlets, and the internet have been exploding with new articles about naloxone. As awareness of this opioid overdose antidote grows, more people are pushing for this drug’s wider availability.

I’ve posted blogs about how the Project Lazarus kits have saved lives in my Appalachian corner of the world, but now let’s review some of the science behind naloxone.

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, which means the drug binds to the mu opioid receptors in the brain, but instead of stimulating these receptors to produce euphoria and pain relief, naloxone does the opposite. It occupies the receptor and prevents opioids from attaching to these receptors to cause euphoria and pain relief. Naloxone has a high affinity to the mu opioid receptors, meaning it sticks like glue to them, but it does not activate these receptors.

If you give naloxone to an average person with no prior opioid use, not much will happen. Because naloxone can block our body’s own opioids, endorphins, that person might feel a little achy, tired, and irritable. But for the most part, when naloxone is given to a non-user of opioids, nothing happens.

If the patient has used opioids just once, recently, the patient won’t have withdrawal when given a dose of naloxone, since the body isn’t used to having opioids anyway. Naloxone in this case restores the body to its usual state. This’s why naloxone can be useful in a patient given opioids for surgical anesthesia. After the surgery is over, doctors can use naloxone to reverse the opioid anesthesia if they want the patient to wake up more quickly.

But in a patient with opioid addiction (or in a chronic pain patient) who uses opioids daily, naloxone causes opioid withdrawal. With long-standing opioid use, the body makes adjustments to counteract the chronic presence of opioids. When these opioids are whisked away with naloxone, this balance is abruptly upset, and the patient goes into precipitate withdrawal, if enough naloxone is given.

Naloxone is the opioid buzz-kill drug… and it’s also the opioid overdose life saver.

People die from opioid overdoses because the brain gets saturated with opioids. The part of the brain that tells us to breathe during sleep, the medulla, also gets saturated, and eventually shuts off. This usually occurs gradually. The respiratory rate slows over one to three hours, until all respirations stop. Then tissues of essential organs like the brain and heart die from lack of oxygen.

If naloxone can be given during this process, the opioids are tossed off brain receptors, and the medulla fires urgent orders for the body to resume breathing. The patient wakes up, so long as irreversible damage hasn’t yet been done to the brain and heart. In some cases, the patient goes into full precipitated opioid withdrawal, but usually the naloxone doesn’t reverse all of the opioids on board, just enough to save the patient’s life.

It’s a dramatic event. I’ve seen this in the emergency department during my Internal Medicine training. A patient can be lying on a stretcher, dead… then one dose of naloxone…. and they are sitting up, asking what happened to them. And sometimes they vomit. That’s another thing I learned in training. After giving a dose of naloxone, take one step back. Even better, place the patient in the “recovery position,” illustrated at the top of this blog, so that if they do vomit, they won’t aspirate the stuff into their lungs.

Naloxone is a relatively cheap drug, and it can be administered in several ways: intravenously, as doctors and EMS workers have always done, intramuscularly, subcutaneously, and intranasally.

Project Lazarus uses this last method. Their overdose kits contain two vials of naloxone 2mg each, and are in a syringe with a nozzle that is attached to the end of the syringe. This causes the medication to spray when the plunger of the syringe is pushed. It’s sprayed up in the nose of an unconscious person, and gets absorbed quickly. In fact, the response rates of all methods of naloxone administration are about the same – two to three minutes. If the patient doesn’t respond after a few minutes, the second dose can be given. Or if the patient initially responds but then gets sedated again, the second dose can be given.

The Harm Reduction Coalition gives out kits with a vial of naloxone and a 3cc syringe and needle. It takes some skill to administer naloxone intravenously, but this kit can be used intramuscularly or subcutaneously. All the rescuer has to do is draw the medication from the vial into the syringe, then stick the needle into the thigh muscle and push the plunger. Usually that delivers the medication into the muscle, unless the person has a great deal of fat between the skin and muscle. But that doesn’t matter, since this medication also works when injected into the subcutaneous tissue.

Each version of a naloxone kit has its advantages. The intranasal kit doesn’t require a needle, so there’s no risk of an accidental needle stick by the rescuer. But it’s a little more expensive. The intramuscular kits are really cheap, but some people in the community worry about handing out a needle and syringe that could be used to inject drugs. I don’t worry about that, since needle exchange should be done in every community, but that’s a bit of a tangent. More practically, addicts don’t use 3cc syringes; they’re too large. Addicts would miss their shot, and too much of their drug of abuse would get left behind in that big syringe.

I don’t think it matters what kind of kit is made available to addicts, their families, and first responders. We just need to get some kind of naloxone kit to these people.

Of course, all these kits contain the recommendation to call 911 immediately. But those precious minutes before EMS arrives may mean the difference between life and death. If naloxone can be given, the patient may be saved. Their brain function may be saved.

To be continued…