The growing number of heroin-related deaths in the state of Washington reflects a disturbing nationwide trend. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that drug overdoses are now the nation’s leading cause of injury death, surpassing both motor vehicle accidents and firearms.
The CDC reports that about 105 people die every day in the United States from some type of drug overdose. They say drugs cause nine out of every 10 deaths attributed to poisoning.
The state Department of Health reports that at least 231 Washingtonians died from heroin overdoses in 2012, including four in Thurston County. And when overdoses from opiates such as Oxycodone and other prescription painkillers are included, the death toll jumps dramatically.
The number has been increasing steadily since 2008, and heroin may be killing more people than official death certificates indicate. The drug metabolizes as morphine, so toxicology reports in overdose cases often list morphine or an opiate as the cause of death.
There should be no doubt about the extent of the heroin problem. Thurston County Drug Court has reported a 400 percent increase in cases involving heroin addiction in the past several years.
Other states have addressed this crisis by allowing police officers, firefighters, paramedics and shelter providers to carry and administer the powerful reversing agent naloxone hydrochloride. The New York City Health Department has filed a letter to the Food and Drug Administration recommending that it be available over the counter.
Known by its trade name Narcan, the inexpensive drug reveres the effects of heroin and other opiates within minutes.
In states that have authorized emergency personnel to carry Narcan, it has saved hundreds of lives. Other states are considering legislation that requires first responders to carry the reversing agent, and to legally protect those who administer Narcan to people who have overdosed.
There are pilot programs in Washington to get Narcan into the hands of people who can prevent overdose fatalities. In King County, some pharmacists dispense Narcan to high-risk people through a physician-authorized protocol that is specific to an individual.
Washington is one of 17 states where Good Samaritan laws provide some protection from criminal prosecution for those who seek help for themselves or others who have overdosed. But family and friends of addicts aren’t allowed to possess Narcan or administer it.
Heroin is an equal-opportunity killer; it takes the lives of suburban teens, impoverished street people and celebrity actors. And 85 percent die in the presence of others — people who could save the victims if they had Narcan available.
The Washington Legislature must confront this public health crisis. It’s a necessity now to get Narcan into the hands of those in a position to save lives, and to provide legal protection for those who administer it.