Narcan Saves Lives But How Does It Affect Addiction?

By Paul Gaita 09/22/17

A new series called "Heroin Uncut: The Truth About the Crisis" recently tackled the role of Narcan in the opioid addiction epidemic.

a woman holding naloxone nasal spray
Photo via YouTube

A feature on New Jersey 101.5 suggests that relying solely on using the opioid overdose-reversing drug Narcan may save lives, but it does not address the struggle of addiction that can lead to overdose.

The story—part of "Heroin Uncut: The Truth About the Crisis," a series of articles and podcasts featured on the radio station's website and mobile app—argues that a greater emphasis on prevention and support for people after receiving Narcan will have a more lasting impact than "institutionalizing Narcan," which the authors suggest has contributed to a culture of addiction.

The story quotes author and academic Brian Everett of The South Jersey Report, who summarizes the argument against Narcan thusly:

"We should not be celebrating the fact that we have systematically let an addiction get so out of hand that we now require emergency responders and teachers to be equipped with an emergency overdose antidote… Narcan addresses a symptom of the problem and that symptom is when addicts overdose. The overall problem is addiction. So what are we doing to address the underlying cause of opioid or heroin addiction?"

The authors point out possible policy solutions that are already in place in New Jersey, such as the Heroin Addiction Response Program (HARP), which allows individuals with a substance dependency issue to seek help from police without the fear of arrest. The program, which was established in Ocean County, New Jersey, was introduced in January 2017 and allows participants to receive help from a treatment program in the area.

Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato voiced his support for the program, which he says provides a "continuum of care" by transitioning participants from detoxification to sober living. 

Key to the success of the program is involving police and first responders to think beyond the Narcan solution. The feature cites the story of a former IV drug user named Anthony, who was revived with Narcan following an overdose on heroin. Anthony had already gone through the traditional path for some users—arrest, detox and then a return to the streets, where he almost immediately suffered an overdose. But a detective who was present at the time of Anthony's revival took the extra step to visit him in his hospital room and promised more than just the baseline level of support.

"He said, 'You're in no shape to go down to the police station. We'll send you something in the mail, and I hope you're all right,'" said Anthony.

The detective's actions echo the policy of Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato, who said that his office has "ordered the police to [make sure that users are] taken to the emergency room." He added, "We want to follow it through onto sober living, and we're going to continue to track you because we're interested [in] outcomes."

Relying on Narcan alone, according to Coronato, would be a "lost opportunity."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.