Police get new life-saving tool in battle against N.J. heroin epidemic
As the number of people struggling with heroin and prescription drug addiction continues to grow across the state, police throughout New Jersey are preparing to arm themselves with a tool that could help reduce the number of people who die from overdoses each year.
By early next year, police in Ocean, Hunterdon, Camden and Cape May counties could begin carrying Narcan, an aerosol form of naloxone, which counteracts the effects of heroin and other opioids, buying first responders valuable time to get overdose victims potentially life-saving care, officials said.
“The time frame is extremely critical when you have an overdose and certainly the sooner the intervention is available the better chance for success,” said Rebecca Alfaro, the director of prevention and training with the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
Previously, only hospital staff could administer Narcan, the brand name for naloxone. But it became legal for police officers — and virtually anyone else — to use the drug when legislators earlier this year passed the Opioid Antidote and Overdose Prevention Act, a “good Samaritan” law aimed at protecting those who render aid to overdose victims.
On average, it would take up to 15 minutes for an overdose victim to receive aid from a hospital employee, said Kenneth Lavelle, a doctor and former firefighter who is helping police in Ocean County train to use the drug. Police equipped with naloxone can normally administer a dose within two to four minutes while relatives and friends who have the drug on hand can provide aid immediately.
The drug would be administered just like a nasal spray and can revive people who overdose on heroin or other opiates.
Narcan will be in police cars throughout Ocean County by February, said Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony Kearns said local police officers will also begin carrying the drug next year, and Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said he has begun discussions with local police chiefs about the use of Narcan.
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said he will take a “very close look” at using the drug early next year, which would make his department the first law enforcement agency in one of New Jersey’s major cities to carry Narcan.
“Anybody who has a loved one who has a problem with drugs really should have this in their house,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said. “I’ve got mixed emotions. I’m not trying to condone what people are doing. But at the same time, it’s about saving somebody’s life.”
Naloxone can block the effects of an opioid for roughly 90 minutes, Lavelle said. The effects of heroin often last up to four hours so addicts who use naloxone to ward off an overdose will still require medical attention, he said.
Heroin abuse has surged in New Jersey since 2010, as young prescription pill addicts turned to the cheaper street drug after running low on funds for oxycodone and other substances. In Ocean County alone, 107 people have died of fatal drug overdoses this year, and the overwhelming majority of those deaths have been linked to heroin or opiates, Della Fave said.
In 2012, the county saw just 53 fatal drug overdoses.
The number of people admitted to treatment facilities in New Jersey in 2012 grew by 11.4 percent, jumping from 22,757 to 25,356, records show.
While rehabilitation and drug enforcement are still critical to stemming the epidemic, prosecutors said the use of naloxone by police will be key to slowing the number of deaths in the meantime.
“The heroin is so pure here in New Jersey. An unsophisticated user is certainly very prone and vulnerable to overdose,” Kearns said. “The fact is that it’s so inexpensive and it’s not controlled, it’s a drug that every time a person uses it, it’s like Russian roulette.”