What would you do if a friend or family member began to exhibit signs of an opioid overdose? Calling an ambulance or the police is one option, but the time that it takes for the responders to arrive may be more time than that person has left. You could administer a drug called Narcan® to reverse the effects of the overdose, however, prior to 2001, doing so could have gotten you into legal hot water. At that time the medications’ use was not permitted for even first responders. In 2001, the New Mexico State Legislature passed a law removing criminal and civil liability for first responders, allowing them to administer Narcan® for reversing an opioid overdose. This action placed an invaluable tool in their hands.
In case you are unfamiliar with it, Narcan® is currently the only drug capable of reversing an opioid overdose if administered promptly. By removing the legal barriers to its’ use, it became a powerful lifesaving tool for many in New Mexico who couldn’t use it before.
Expanding on the 2001 law in 2007, the New Mexico Legislature became the first state in the nation to pass Good Samaritan laws. These laws protect both overdose victims and witnesses from criminal prosecution for simple drug offenses when seeking medical attention for a drug overdose. While not protecting those on parole or probation, the law removed a significant barrier for those in need of critical medical attention.
Spurred on by success, in 2017 Governor Susana Martinez signed into law a bill that permitted possession of Narcan® by individuals and community organizations while, at the same time, relieving them of civil liability for its’ use. Now, this lifesaving tool can be more readily available for use within the community at large.
In cities such as Albuquerque, where high levels of poverty and crime drive up the substance abuse rate, the ability to provide Narcan® to opioid overdose victims is invaluable. The Albuquerque Fire Department has recorded as many as 600 opioid overdoses in a single year, with many of them ending in fatality. Sadly, the Native American population is one of the most heavily impacted segments of the population with respect to opioid abuse, with approximately twenty-two deaths per hundred thousand members. Albuquerque’s proximity to the Mexican border and use as a distribution point for major drug trafficking operations, means that heroin is easily accessible to the drug use community.
Today in New Mexico, when you are prescribed an opioid such as Oxycontin, Vicodin, or fentanyl for 5 days or longer, your doctor will also co-prescribe Narcan® as a precautionary measure. For individuals not used to the potency of legal opioids, this can help to drive home the seriousness of the potential for overdose.
Among Albuquerque’s drug users, the shift from heroin to the synthetic opiate fentanyl, has medical professionals worried. Fentanyl has a potency level up to 50 times that of heroin and, due to its inexpensive nature, is often mixed into heroin and other street drugs to increase profits by drug dealers. When an opioid user takes what is, to them, a normal dose of heroin, this increased potency can result in an accidental, fatal overdoses. Fortunately, Narcan® is equally effective on both natural and synthetic opioids, if administered in time.
With the highest rate of death by overdose in the United States, New Mexico’s decision to improve ready access to Narcan® is to be applauded. By being able to quickly and legally administer Narcan®, anyone can function as a first responder in a life-threatening opioid overdose situation, allowing concerned friends, family members and community organizations to effectively respond to opioid users in distress.
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