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L.A. County Tackles Opioid Crisis By Arming Deputies With Anti-OD Drug

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Naloxone, an emergency medication that can reverse opioid ODs. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)
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L.A. County is trying a new tactic in the fight against opioid addiction; supplying deputies with naloxone, an emergency drug that is used to reverse heroin overdoses. Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced a plan on Thursday to arm deputies in Crescenta Valley, East Los Angeles and Santa Clarita Valley with naloxone, better known by its brand name Narcan, as part of a pilot program to fight opioid overdose and addiction.

While the nationwide opioid crisis is often associated with rural parts of the country, it has come to pose a severe public health issue in California, officials say. During a press conference at the Hall of Justice on Thursday, McDonnell cited eight heroin overdoses that took place over the span of three days last April in Santa Clarita, resulting in one death, and noted that Narcotics Bureau detectives investigating the source of the drugs uncovered heroin that was laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid normally administered by medical professionals. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department devised its plan to arm officers with Narcan in collaboration with the public health program Safe Med LA, whose most recent report estimates that there were 12,031 prescription opioid-related hospitalizations in L.A. County in 2015.

Not everyone is enthused about the prospect of Narcan, a four-milligram nasal spray, saturating communities; in her recent article "The Addicts Next Door," New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot notes that although police or EMT-administered Narcan is one of the few tools proving successful in preventing death by overdose in the opioid-ravaged community of Berkeley County, West Virginia, some locals there fear that increasing the availability of Narcan could "foster complacency about overdoses."

Nonetheless, Dr. Gary Tsai, Medical Director for the L.A. County Department of Public Health's Substance Abuse Prevention and Control division, is optimistic about L.A. County's plan to arm officers with Narcan. "Having first responders—including police officers—carry Narcan is important because they’re usually the first to respond to suspected overdose, in which cases every second is critical, because when someone ODs from opioids, they’re usually not breathing sufficiently and their brain isn’t getting enough oxygen," Tsai told LAist. "Every second the brain is without oxygen, more and more damage occurs, so first responders can potentially save lives with Narcan in the short term."

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Tsai believes emergency administration of Narcan could also prove effective as a long-term strategy for decreasing L.A. County's rate of opioid addiction, explaining, "Individuals who’ve had their overdoses reversed oftentimes become more amenable to substance abuse treatment, and will often say that they started taking treatment more seriously after coming close to death."

While opioid addiction and overdose is a mounting concern for the county's public health community, Tsai pointed out that L.A. County's rate of approximately 400 opioid-related deaths per year is relatively stable compared to other counties in California. "The L.A. Sheriff's Department pilot program to arm first responders with Narcan could be effective in keeping that rate down and pushing it even lower," Tsai said, adding, "This could be a huge win for the community."