The first sign of a heroin overdose is a slowed pulse. The victim’s pupils shrink to small dots and their breathing shallows until, eventually, it stops — unless they are treated with a nasal spray called naloxone.
The drug, which is standard in most ambulances, immediately reverses the effects of depressed breathing by removing the opiate molecules from the brain’s receptors — it miraculously brings the user back to a stable state within 20 to 30 seconds. It is an FDA-approved, non-toxic and non-habit forming nasal spray that, if sprayed into a sober nose, would make no difference to the person’s physical condition.
Police officers in 17 states are authorized to carry naloxone with them at all times. Equipping police officers with naloxone has proven to be an effective rebuttal to a dramatic increase in heroin use in the United States in the last five years, especially given that police officers are often the first to arrive to the scene of an overdose. Since training its officers in 2010, a small police station in Quincy, Mass. has used the nasal spray 221 times and has reversed 211 overdoses. It is an astoundingly potent answer to the crippling drug epidemic that takes more than 30,000 lives per year, including that of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this year.
California is not one of these states, despite the strong presence of heroin in places such as Santa Cruz County, a hotbed of black tar heroin use in Northern California. In 2010, more drug users were admitted to rehabilitation centers for heroin than for any other drug in Santa Cruz County.
The benefits of giving California police officers the training they need to safely and effectively use naloxone seem obvious, but this prospect received criticism in the media and the public forum.
Critics have voiced the concern that equipping police officers with naloxone lets drug users off the hook and keeps drug users from learning the consequences of their actions. Granted, the nasal spray is not the preventative cure to heroin abuse we so desperately need, but it is a step toward a more holistic and compassionate handling of drug addiction.
Naloxone does not condone heroin use, it productively admits that it is a fact — something the population of Santa Cruz can understand. Arrests can be made and confiscations of heroin can be successful, but at the end of the day heroin remains one of the most addictive substances in the world. We must ask ourselves if the drug policy is meant to persecute or protect its violators. We at City on a Hill undoubtedly would answer with the latter.
Authorizing the use of naloxone by California police officers has the potential to catalyze a step forward in the dynamic between police officers and drug users. Many of the states that authorized the use of naloxone also implemented Good Samaritan Laws, which offer legal protection to anyone who calls emergency services.
With the threat of arrest removed, witnesses of an overdose can feel more comfortable calling upon authorities to save an overdose victim’s life. These laws could shift the relationship between police officers and drug users from antagonistic to potentially life-saving.
According to USA Today, precincts in Ocean County, N.J. funded the investment with seized drug money. Given that the potentially life saving nasal spray could be funded by the drug dealers who perpetuate the problem, California has been negligent in that it has not authorized naloxone to be available to every police officer.
The small nasal spray is a reminder of the reason authorities should concern themselves with drug use in the first place — to save people. The effects of heroin abuse extend beyond those who use it. It makes victims of the families, friends and the countless cities that fight it. Naloxone has proven it can alleviate this growing tragedy and it deserves the opportunity to prove itself further.