• Narcan: Treating overdoses, but not addiction

    By: Christopher Heath

    Updated:

    In 2016, 5,725 Floridians died of opioids. The epidemic that swept across the nation has not spared Florida.

    In response to the spike in deaths, emergency workers began carrying Naloxone in the form of a nasal spray known as Narcan. Narcan block the effects of opioids and can, if administered correctly, reverse the effect of an overdose.

    But now, new research is raising the question of effectiveness.

    “Narcan is a quick fix,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in an interview with Nine Investigates.  “The Palm Beach Fire Department told me they use the term, it’s like Groundhog Day, they kept seeing the same people week after week after week.”

    Even as the use of Narcan has expanded across the state, the number of opioid related deaths has not fallen.

    “My nephew, my brother’s only son, 38 years old, overdosed on fentanyl,” says Orange County Pharmacist Linda Lazuka.  “I didn’t know it was to the point that it was, he went in the bathroom and when they found him, he was on the floor and had the white stuff all over and he still had a bill in his hand, from whatever they do with it, snort it, sniff it, chew it.  They don’t know how long he was there.”

    This was not the first overdose for Lazuka’s nephew.  The 38-year old had been brought back with Narcan at least twice before, but was unable to escape the addiction.

    In a working paper, researchers Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Anita Mukherjee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison are exploring possible links between the expansion of Narcan and the unintended consequences.

    “Given increases in both quantity demanded and quantity supplied, it appears that naloxone access laws increased the level of activity in the illegal opioid market, and suggests an increase in consumption of illegal opioids,” write the authors.  “Broadening availability of naloxone may have encouraged the distribution of fentanyl a more potent opioid that achieves higher highs but at greater risk to the user.”

    Drug treatment professionals stress that Narcan and similar drugs need to be viewed as a bridge to recovery, otherwise the cycle of addiction and overdose will continue, increasing the risk of death.

    But, Florida has struggled to fund drug treatment.  In 2017 Florida cut $20 million from drug treatment and mental health.  Currently, the Florida Department of Corrections is eyeing $29 million in cuts to substance abuse to help plug a hole in its budget.

    "We have to have treatment in our facilities, it's ridiculous not to," said AG Bondi.

    While AG Bondi and others have spoken favorably about funding treatment, the answering the cost associated with meeting this need has remained elusive meaning the use of Narcan will continue to deliver mixed long-term results.

    As Linda Lazuka says, “it is a Band-Aid for that moment.”

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