Narcan Saves Lives, But With Some Unintended Consequences

Jan 19, 2016

Naloxone, or Narcan, is a prescription drug designed to reverse respiratory depression caused by opioid overdose.

The drug has become widely accessible in Vermont, with various police agencies and first responders gaining access to the drug.

But some say Narcan has unintended consequences. Gina Tron, who has been covering the story for the Times Argus, joined VPR to discuss the potential abuse of Narcan.

Tron says that according to police, people who use heroin have been using Narcan as a kind of safety net to avoid overdose.

"Police said that any time that they do a search of a home or a car, there's a very high percentage of those cases where they find Narcan as well as opiates. They say many addicts will be abusing heroin more, because they have the Narcan and it's a false security blanket."

Tron says that's especially dangerous in cases where heroin is laced with Fentanyl, as those overdoses have required much more Narcan to revive a patient.

She also says that police report some heroin dealers using Narcan during so-called 'tests' of new batches of heroin.

"I spoke to John Merrigan of the Vermont State Police," Tron says. "He told me that if there's a new batch of heroin in town, a trafficker or a dealer might test out that heroin on a person in the room. They'll have the Narcan in the room as a backup. That's how they can kind of measure out the doses, based on how that person reacts. If they have a bad reaction, they will revive them with Narcan."

In general, though, Tron says Vermont police believe Narcan saves lives, and has given many people addicted to heroin a second chance.

Emergency Narcan kits, like this one from New Hampshire, are made available to addicts, their friends and family. There is now a concern that the drug is being used by dealers and addicts as a safety net for more extreme drug use, instead of as an emergency measure.
Credit Jim Cole / AP

In 2014, Vermont had 63 opiate related overdose deaths while New Hampshire had over 300. Tron says that despite any potential downside of Narcan, police attribute the drug's availability in Vermont to that lower overdose death rate.

"Vermont State Police and local police are saying it's saving lives. None of the people that are perhaps abusing it in any way negates from any of the positive work that it's doing," says Tron.