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Drug overdose deaths: Common-sense solutions [Blowback]

September 30, 2011 |  1:19 pm

Meghan Ralston, harm reduction coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, responds to The Times' Sept. 17 article, "Drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the U.S., data show." If you would like to respond to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed in our Blowback forum, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

The Times broke a major story this month about the skyrocketing number of drug-related deaths now appearing to exceed the number of car accident fatalities nationally. Indeed, the overdose crisis in the U.S. is exploding, largely due to prescription painkiller drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Some well-intentioned officials are now publicly addressing the problem.

However, it's more than just a bit disheartening to hear, "We don't know a lot about how to reduce prescription [drug] deaths," as one public health expert told The Times.

In fact, we do know how to reduce the number of overdose deaths. We have a range of solutions that work and cost taxpayers nothing.

Prescription drug overdoses result from lack of information, fear of police, bad policy and a range of other factors. In the public health world, the solutions and responses to the overdose crisis are not just extremely well known, they're also already being widely implemented in a variety of states and communities across the country.

Naloxone is the "life or death" medicine, the antidote for people experiencing an overdose from an opiate such as oxycodone or heroin. It's usually the last-ditch effort, and it works in the majority of cases. Naloxone has been the first line of defense against opiate overdose in emergency rooms and ambulances across the country for more than 40 years. Its safety and efficacy are so well known and so well documented that it's now being made available to opiate users by physicians in dozens of communities across the country. Naloxone works, saves lives and usually costs less than $20 per dose. Every person in America who uses any kind of opiate shouldn't just know about it, they should have it at home right now.

States across the country have passed what are known as "Good Samaritan 911" laws, which encourage people witnessing or experiencing an overdose to call 911 without fear of arrest for minor drug law violations. New York, New Mexico and Washington have already adopted this common-sense reform, and other states should follow suit.

Other solutions that experts have been advocating for years include requiring drug treatment facilities to teach their clients about overdose prevention, recognition and response. Jails and prisons should also be required to do so upon a prisoner's release. High schools and colleges should incorporate such lifesaving information in their current alcohol and drug abuse prevention curricula.

These are just a few of the low-cost, practical responses to this crisis we could implement right away. So why don't most people know about them? Even more curiously, why aren't government officials promoting these reforms? 

Sadly, the prevailing war on drugs ideology requires bureaucrats and politicians to ignore the obvious and stick to the punitive. Public health officials who know better are drowned out when talking about an approach to drug use that focuses on keeping people alive and healthy and keeping families intact. Prescription drugs are already plentiful throughout the United States. Limiting access to them alone cannot address the harms caused by their misuse and does nothing to address any addiction issues that may be driving their use.

We need to hold officials accountable not just for the skyrocketing overdose death rate but for their refusal to advocate proven, low-cost solutions that go beyond simply making it harder for people to get prescription drugs. We have to admit the complexity of the problem and start aggressively pursuing better strategies.

-- Meghan Ralston


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Photo: Chris Hondros / Getty Images

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