Time to talk about accidental drug overdoses

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Emily Kaltenbach

It’s time to break the taboo on open discussion about drugs and accidental overdoses; lives are literally hanging in the balance

Aug. 31 marks International Overdose Awareness Day, a day for people in New Mexico and around the world to publicly mourn loved ones without guilt or shame. This day is also an occasion to educate policymakers and the public about the growing overdose crisis in New Mexico and beyond. It is time we offer concrete solutions that save lives.

Overdoses happen everywhere, to all kinds of people, and it’s only been getting worse in recent years. Drug overdose is now the number one cause of accidental death for Americans between the ages of 35 and 54. In 17 states, it now surpasses car accidents as the leading overall cause of accidental death.

New Mexico has long grappled with overdose mortality rates far above the national average. Overdose deaths continue to rise – the heroin overdose rate in 2008 was the second highest ever recorded, and fatal overdoses from prescription opiates such as hydrocodone and oxycontin have surged alarmingly. Nor are our young people being spared from this epidemic, as there has been an increase in the number of people 21 years and younger dying from overdoses.

This loss of life is completely unacceptable, in no small part because most of these deaths are so easily preventable. But the “tough-on-crime” rhetoric of the drug war and the stigma associated with illicit drug use have blocked the widespread adoption of simple, proven, life-saving policies.

New Mexico has become a leader

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In the face of this tragedy, however, New Mexico has become a leader in the struggle to prevent overdose fatalities. It became the first state in the nation to implement a 911 – Good Samaritan law in 2007 that provides people who call 911 on behalf of an overdose victim with limited immunity from prosecution for drug possession. Good Samaritan laws reduce reluctance to seek medical help when illegal drugs are involved, and thus save lives.

Our Department of Health has programs to educate the public about overdose risks and trains first responders, law enforcement and members of the public how to recognize an overdose and respond using rescue techniques and the opiate antagonist medicine naloxone. This unheralded and inexpensive drug has been used by first responders for decades. Administered nasally, it can revive opiate overdose victims within minutes.

These programs save lives while reducing hospitalization costs and relieving pressure on first responders and emergency rooms. More could and should be done, however, to expand the availability of naloxone. All too often, first responders are not called or cannot arrive in time.

More to be done

On this day of awareness and mourning, we ask New Mexico’s lawmakers to build upon the growing tradition in New Mexico of taking a proactive role in addressing the overdose crisis. We ask them to stand up and support policies designed to get us to a place where politics no longer trumps public health, science or compassion.

Policies that continue to support access to syringe exchange programs for all New Mexicans struggling with an addiction, including our youth.

Policies to increase access to naloxone, which has no abuse potential and costs as little as one dollar for one dose.

And policies to explore the efficacy of safe injection sites and heroin prescription programs – both of which are evidence-based, life-saving interventions for individuals struggling with addiction to opioids when other treatments have not worked.

There is no question that innovative overdose prevention programs are needed and long overdue in this state. All that stands in the way is ideology and the cynical assumption that it can never happen in New Mexico.

Emily Kaltenbach is the New Mexico state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

12 thoughts on “Time to talk about accidental drug overdoses

  1. Er, Qui Tam, are we going to go through another one of those weeks where you follow me around making snarky personal comments that have nothing to do with the conversation and honestly thinking that you’re contributing something? Because it got pretty boring for everyone pretty quickly last time.

  2. Well, Thinker, I suppose I could make the “swaying the independent observer” case – which is technically true – but to be perfectly honest, it’s fun to argue with people whose arguments are self-defeating.

  3. q and Icarus,

    Bless you, but you waste your time: Ignorance is Bliss.

    When a person refuses to expend the energy to understand the complexities of a problem like drug addiction, then spouts simplistic statements regarding “culling the herd” or “one visit to a detox center and you’re done” as a solution, there simply is no hope. Move on, use your hard-earned insights where they can be of use.

    It’s become the cri de couer of the “Know-Nothing” Right to demand we “just get rid of” anything or anybody they don’t like–old people on Medicare, immigrant field hands, poor people on welfare, drug addicts, gays and lesbians—all because they have never had a single deep thought in their entire lives, and dammit! theyre not gonna start now! Laziness and intellectual in-curiousness are unfortunately the disorders which are actually destroying our society today–not drugs.

  4. “Society should not have to bear the brunt of this bad behavior.

    Reptillian or not, I do not want my tax dollars to be used in this manner.”

    But, society IS BEARING THE BRUNT of addiction in the most inefficient, ineffective and most expensive way possible. Incarceration costs up to 40K per year and there is the cost of the rest of the judicial system involved. There is the cost of disfranchisement of entire populations that cannot function as productive and responsible citizen to the extent they are able because they are sucked into a punitive system. There is also the societal cost of crime that caters to Black Market economics from organized crime to petty theft.
    You could even throw in the cost of the whole War on Drugs for pete’s sake.
    Pennies on the dollar. Pennies on the dollar.

  5. I am not the one offering needle / syringe exchanges, safe injection sites and prescription heroin.

    No, Mr. Best, you aren’t. What you’re offering instead is a proven path to continued addiction through our revolving-door prison system and by telling these people that something which every competent doctor in the civilized world agrees is a medical condition is criminal. What Ms. Kasenbach is offering is a medically- and psychologically-viable route to treating that condition. Your last sentence is exactly wrong, because treating the underlying issue to take people off drugs is exactly what is being proposed here, but you can’t see beyond a single detail about the specifics of the most effective route to accomplish the medical concern, which absolutely must be done before tackling the psychological concerns. Do I particularly like the idea of prescriptions for drugs of this magnitude? Not really, but under the circumstances, it is a far more effective method to solving this epidemic than simply telling people “no”. Do I think we need an expansion of in-patient facilities? Absolutely, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the instant it is proposed, someone whose vision and pragmatism is as limited and punitive as your own will come forward and claim we’re “enabling” people who actually need our help.

  6. Who’s the enabler here, exactly?

    I am not the one offering needle / syringe exchanges, safe injection sites and prescription heroin. The next thing she will want is a room at the Hilton Hotel for them.

    If someone is offering the tools to continue this bad behavior, then who is the enabler?

    Prison may not be the answer, but what if we expand the in-patient psychiatric hospitals? The NM Department of Health operates six facilities that provide long-term, rehabilitative, behavioral health and drug treatment programs. Maybe we need more?

    In-patient treatment instead of living on the streets and doing whatever to find cash for the next score?

    There are so many better options than those proposed by Ms Kaltenbach. I cannot find one logical reason for suggestions. They do not treat the underlying issues and certainly do not work toward getting these folks off drugs.

  7. After that, you should be on your own or dead or in prison (which is a whole other thread).

    No, it really isn’t. The whole point of Ms. Kaltenbach’s position is the demonstrable reality that imprisonment doesn’t work in this situation. If you’re going to call someone an “enabler”, Mr. Best, you might want to check to see if their position doesn’t have a demonstrated history of actually solving the problem, as opposed to yours, which doesn’t. Who’s the enabler here, exactly?

  8. I found your comment to be utterly lacking in solution

    With all due respect, I did not offer a solution other than one free visit to a detox center. If they are serious about ceasing drug use, then it will help. After that, you should be on your own or dead or in prison (which is a whole other thread).

    I refuse to be an enabler of continued bad behavior. Society should not have to bear the brunt of this bad behavior.

    Reptillian or not, I do not want my tax dollars to be used in this manner. But, as long as there are sympathetic enablers like yourself and Ms. Kaltenbach, then I guess the point is moot.

  9. Mark Best,
    These are someone’s children and they are not culled by this process. They are disenfranchised and incarcerated not killed. The system makes it so they cannot continue to educate, train and gain employment. Data shows that extrinsic motivation does nothing to cure or alleviate addiction of any kind. That means trying to force someone towards controlling a behavior goes against human nature and fails every time. People have to come to their own righteousness according to their own time and capability. It is ludicrous to think that ONE VISIT to a government-supplied supervised heroin (or other drug) detox will remedy any addiction. Data also shows that harm reduction does not enable bad behavior but enables more addicts to successfully quit their addictions over time. Leading a useful and meaningful life enables people to outgrow immature and self destructive behavior. Whereas ruining people’s lives enables stunted emotional maturity and lifelong relapse into addiction.
    I found your comment to be utterly lacking in solution and rather reptilian.

  10. Ms Kaltenbach lost me at syringe exchange and heroin prescription programs. Both do nothing but enable the user into continued bad behavior.

    Everything in life is a choice. Drug abuse was a bad choice that these folks made and they are paying the hefty price.

    Not too much sympathy from this arena.

    I will support ONE VISIT to a government-supplied supervised heroin (or other drug) detox which is an essential first step to a successful drug rehab program. If the abuser fails or falls off the wagon, then so be it. A culling of the herd, so to speak.

  11. Imagine.
    Our drug addicted children get up in the morning and kiss their spouse goodbye before dropping the kids off at the babysitter on the way to work. After work, they stop by the pharmacy to pick up their prescription. Over a couple of years, most of our drug addicted children, with or without addiction therapy, quit taking those prescriptions for heroin, cocaine, whatever.
    Harm reduction. The data shows that it works using that good old intrinsic motivation rather than the continuously failing extrinsic motivation. Happiness and righteousness comes to each of us at different rates and for different reasons. Addiction is as old as humanity. Understanding and patience will get better and more humane results than persecution and incarceration. These are our children.