Through my research into these organizations and my training, I learned about harm reduction, which I would summarize as working to help people be safer in dangerous situations and/or when practicing risky behaviors, rather than trying to force extreme “black and white” change. For example, if a person has a violent partner and sees signs that their partner is getting agitated, they might try to stay in a room with an exit and without sharp objects (rather than abruptly leaving their partner, which (a) is not always a safe decision and (b) is something people frequently choose not to do).
For opiate users, one option for harm reduction is to provide individuals, their friends, or other people close to them with naloxone (aka Narcan), an antidote to opiate overdose that can be administered intranasally, intramuscularly, or intravenously. Paramedics carry it for responding to potential drug overdoses, but sometimes paramedics aren’t called or arrive too late.
The recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a suspected overdose has increased the news coverage of heroin deaths and the importance of naloxone. In my opinion, this news coverage of such an excellent actor highlights that users of heroin and other life-threatening drugs are multi-faceted, complex people, rather than beyond-hope dregs of society. I’m sure to many people this is a no duh statement, yet stereotypes continue to exist.
In July of 2013, Outside In started training their clients to administer naloxone. According one of their Facebook posts, they have trained 600 people and have had 174 overdose reversals reported to them as of February 5th, 2014. That is a lot of lives. While administering naloxone does send a person into withdrawal, withdrawal is better than death. Outside In also runs a needle exchange program, another harm reduction strategy.
In 2013, Oregon passed SB 384 A, a law allowing persons who have completed training (developed by Oregon Health Authority) to possess and administer naloxone for treatment of opiate overdose. The law also gives such individuals immunity from civil liability except for in the case of wanton misconduct. The law became effective June 6th, 2013.
There are naloxone laws expanding access to this antidote in 17 states plus the District of Columbia (though not all the laws are state-wide). See this informative document by the Network for Public Health Law for more information. It would be great to see more states adopt similar laws.