New Jersey’s Heroin Crisis: Is Narcan Helping?

I’ve long been a critic of the sort of, celebratory rhetoric that sometimes surrounds Narcan. Why? Because our society should not even be here. We should not be celebrating that we’ve systemically let an addiction epidemic get so out of hand, that we now require emergency responders, and teachers, to be equipped with an overdose antidote. Sure, Narcan does indeed reverse an overdose, and fast, and should still be distributed while the addiction crisis is still so prevalent. But I must ask; What are we doing to prevent the need for an overdose antidote?

The rhetoric surrounding Narcan is sometimes confusing, too. Often, the words “save” and “reversal” are used almost interchangeably, but they mean very different things. It is also misleading when the state compiles data which counts the number of deployments of the antidote and equates that number to lives saved. As Dr. Ezley and his team point out in their 2015 publication in the Pain Physician Journal, an overdose does not always equate to a death, making it inaccurate to report every Narcan deployment as a life saved. Overall, triumphalism surrounding Narcan needs to be addressed, especially while considering the following:

New Jersey has some new data to reckon with and unpack. NJ.com shows that there were 180 more heroin deaths in 2015 than in 2014, all while 2015 was the first full year of Narcan being carried by law enforcement officials. You would think that such an availability of an overdose antidote would equate to less deaths, but that is not really how addiction works, especially while the cause of the addiction persists.

In 2014, the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that nearly half of those who were surveyed and abused heroin began their addiction with opioid pain relievers. One would think that with that knowledge, we would see more policy that restricts the prescription of such drugs. Unfortunately, there have not been any laws, but rather, we’ve had several variations of recommendations for best practices, which are not law, and can easily be overlooked or disregarded.

Alas, we then have St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey. The hospital voluntarily embraced a new practice of no longer prescribing opioid pain relievers in their emergency department. They recognize the societal risks associated with opioid medication, which is why the hospital now treats the source of the pain instead of masking it. They held a press conference, and several federal legislators attended and offered comments. But New Jersey still lacks any legislation that restricts opioid prescribing, despite the momentary pomp and circumstance.

That type of lawmaking is what will attack the actual cause of the problem, and not just address a symptom. The problem is addiction. The cause is a known side effect of temporary pain treatment; addiction to percocet, oxycondone, tramadol, and others. The symptom of the problem is overdosing on opioid pills or heroin after developing an addiction. Narcan simply counteracts a symptom of the problem.

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson has even called for preventative legislative help in Camden (see: Cold Turkey). Doctors have even recommended legislative restrictions on prescribing opioids in official publications by the CDC. New Jersey (and the whole North East) has not received what is needed, what is recommended, nor what has been asked for.

It is past time for a brave legislator in our state to courageously step forward and submit such a bill to the legislature, especially while we have a Governor who publicly recognizes the pain of watching a friend succumb to, and die from something a doctor gave them. I sincerely hope this happens. To hopefully expedite the process, I’ve sent a report highlighting the need to prevent these addictions in the first place to the legislative offices of various local, state, and federal lawmakers, with most of them having South Jersey constituencies.

If the United States is able to write laws which restrict the use and application of medicinal marijuana, we can absolutely do the same with drugs that routinely claim lives and tear apart families. We have the data. We know the common denominator! So, let’s act.

Comment (1)

  1. Bill Orr

    Yes. I agree.
    Furthermore, we need more education, prevention research, and parents not leaving addictive meds in their cabinet where youths can access them and start on the road to addiction. Most importantly in NJ there is a severe lack of slots for the long-term treatment that is needed. So many people who cannot afford private treatment, but want it, are denied the service or have to wait for months for a subsidized bed. The state should make more funds available.
    NJ must do better. Narcan can save lives but it is not the answer to the problem.

    Reply

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