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The Conspiracy Against Naloxone


The lifesaver opposed by the drug warriors. photo via

By Maia Szalavitz


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So that’s why, just as I once called for recovery activism in support of needle exchange, I now believe we need it to push naloxone. People in recovery—simply by existing—show that addiction isn’t necessarily forever and that valuable, productive people can suffer from and beat back addiction. We need to stand with those who are not yet ready so that they can survive long enough to hear that message of hope.

While more naloxone-distribution programs at needle exchanges and other places frequented by active addicts are important, however, I think equally important is making naloxone available cheaply over-the-counter and educating the public that it’s a household essential.

Here’s why. The riskiest periods of addiction are times when people have either just started using or recently quit, either in treatment or in prison. At those times, they are simply not likely to attend a needle-exchange program or to believe they have any need for naloxone.

Moreover, what parent—whether they find a teen blue on the couch or find a toddler (or even a pet) gobbling Grandma’s codeine—would not want to have the antidote on hand? Since parents typically believe, “Not my kid,” most would never visit a needle exchange or even think about overdose antidotes. Pain patients prescribed large doses of opioids are also at risk, not to mention addicted people who “doctor shop” and don’t associate with street drug users.

But if the Red Cross and similar organizations promoted naloxone as a first-aid measure that everyone should keep at home, this denial wouldn’t matter. There’d be no stigma to having it; it would just be something everyone stores in the bathroom or kitchen, like ace bandages or disinfectant. As pilots say about safety equipment, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

At least half of all overdoses are witnessed, but if people don’t know the signs to look for or have the means to help, these lives can’t be saved. Key is recognizing erratic breathing, blue skin tone and strange snoring—and not letting someone “sleep it off,” which can be fatal.  

Because people who have “been there” know what addiction is like and how helping others helps our own recovery, our voices are essential. Some of the key leaders in the fight for needle exchange, in fact, are or were recovering ex-addicts, and this is true for naloxone as well. But many, many more voices are needed—the fact that we’re still fighting with Congress over syringe exchange funding is only one illustration of why.

The FDA will hold a meeting April 12 to discuss making naloxone over-the-counter. Wouldn’t it be great if thousands of recovering people showed up or at least contacted the agency (where? click here) to make it know that our lives matter and we support OTC naloxone? 

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). 

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