Local police departments deal with heroin, oxycodone epidemic

With a rise in overdose deaths from heroin and other prescription pain-killers, federal officials are urging local law enforcement agencies to train and equip personnel with the life-saving, overdose-reversal drug known as naloxone.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, calling the situation an “urgent public health crisis,” said first responders should carry naloxone for use in emergencies.

When administered quickly and effectively, naloxone immediately restores breathing to a victim in the throes of a heroin or opioid overdose, according to a U.S. Justice Department press release.

Increasing access to naloxone

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have amended their laws to increase access to naloxone, resulting in more than 10,000 overdose reversals since 2001.

Used in concert with Good Samaritan laws, which grant immunity from criminal prosecution to those seeking medical help for someone experiencing an overdose, naloxone can save lives, states the Justice Department release.

Heroin overdoses are up sharply

Holder recently spoke about the heroin overdose problem. He said that from 2006 to 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45% in the United States.

“When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs,” he said. “And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin.”

Heroin-related opiates include drugs such as oxycodone, codeine and morphine, some of which are available by prescription.

Begins with prescription drug abuse

Holder said the cycle of heroin abuse commonly begins with the abuse of prescription opiates, such as oxycodone. He based this on scientific studies, law enforcement investigations, addiction treatment providers, and comments by victims.

“The transition to — and increase in — heroin abuse is a sad but not unpredictable symptom of the significant increase in prescription drug abuse we’ve seen over the past decade,” Holder said.

Increase enforcement, too

In addition to treatment efforts, Holder said it’s important to increase enforcement action to combat the epidemic. A goal is to interrupt the supply chain that allows prescribed substances to get into the hands of non-medical users.

The supply chain includes practitioners that illegally dispense prescriptions, pharmacists that fill those prescriptions, and distributors that send controlled substances “downstream” without due diligence efforts.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Holder said, “also uses its regulatory authority to review and investigate new pharmacy applications in targeted areas to identify and prevent storefront drug traffickers from obtaining DEA registrations. And they’re also going after ‘pill mills.’”

Raising awareness within families

Holder said the most effective efforts frequently are those that begin at home. “Parents and families can help raise awareness about the devastating consequences of opiate abuse,” he said.

“And Americans like the Gates family of Skowhegan, Maine, are showing the way,” he said. “Their son, Will, was a bright young student at the University of Vermont who overdosed on heroin and lost his life — five years ago this month.

Holder said the Gates family has “transformed their story of heartbreaking loss into a powerful force for change. Working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Vermont, they created an award-winning documentary — called “The Opiate Effect” — to educate people about the realities, and the dangers, of opiate abuse.”

He suggested people watch the video online to learn more about heroin and related prescription pain-killers. Click here to access it: http://vimeo.com/41741770 .