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
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.