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It's only February, but the state of Rhode Island has already lost 38 people to heroin overdoses — 27 in January alone. That's more than double the number in the previous two Januaries. Of course, Rhode Island's crisis is part of a larger national heroin overdose emergency. More people now die of heroin overdoses (about 30,000 last year) than they do in car accidents.
Prevention is the ultimate goal, but states are taking other steps to save lives. One of those is the use of a drug called naloxone, or Narcan. It's known as the "antidote" drug — a shot or nasal spray that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. But it must be administered immediately.
Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. now have some type of Narcan distribution program, including some where family and friends of addicts receive kits in case of emergency. Rhode Island is one state trying to expand its use of Narcan, as state officials shift their perspective on heroin from an issue of criminal justice to an issue of public health.
Here & Now's Robin Young checks in with Dr. Michael Fine, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health about the measures his state is taking.
Interview Highlights: Dr. Michael Fine
On how the Narcan pharmacy program works
"We have a way for people who know someone who's addicted or is addicted themselves, to pick up Narcan at Walgreens pharmacy. One of our physicians has entered into an agreement with our board of pharmacy that allows them to purchase Narcan at the pharmacy — in any Walgreens in Rhode Island. And they have it at home in case they need it... You don’t actually need a prescription. We've used the prescribing authority of one prescriber and we’re actually looking at extending that to all pharmacies in Rhode Island... It’s actually been used by first responders and EMS something like 170 times so far this year."
On concerns about giving Narcan to law enforcement
"I think people are concerned about training. We've had great support from state police who have already decided to do this, and that’s a great thing, I don’t think we’re going to have lots of problems from local police. We’re just working with them to try to get them there."
On why R.I. is treating heroin addiction like an illness, instead of a crime
"Because it saves lives. And for most people, addiction is an illness. It’s an illness that’s way out of their control. You know, something like 10 percent of the population is susceptible to addiction; 3 or 4 percent is probably addicted at any one moment. There are a lot of lives at stake here. This is the single largest contributor of years of potential life lost to young people in Rhode Island and in the United States. You know, think of the energy we put into stopping motor vehicle accidents. We ought to put at least that energy, if not way more, into stopping this epidemic."
This segment aired on February 17, 2014.