In Cook County, Ill., a naloxone distribution program operated by the Chicago Recovery Alliance helped to bring down the number of deaths from 466 in 2000 to 324 in 2003. Dan Bigg, director of the program, says that between January 2001 and September 2006, it documented 478 episodes of reversed overdoses -- most or all of which would have been fatal.
But even though deaths for heroin overdoses are rampant in many places, we have held back from mass deployment of a medicine that can save lives. The federal government provides no money for overdose treatment efforts, though Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill to change that. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has been wary of naloxone, arguing, "We don't want to send the message out that there is a safe way to use heroin."
No, we don't. But it's entirely feasible for governments to proselytize against drug use while trying to keep drug users alive, just as we preach against tobacco while providing medical care to smokers stricken by emphysema.
Naloxone has several great advantages beyond its capacity to instantly avert death. One is that it's very cheap -- about 26 cents a dose. Another is that unlike methadone, which is used to wean addicts off heroin, it has no recreational use. So there is no danger addicts will abuse it or sell it in the black market.
It also can be administered by minimally trained laypeople, which makes it ideal for treating heroin addicts. Many of them die because their fellow drug users are afraid to call 911 and invite an encounter with police. Giving naloxone to a user means he can inject a friend in severe distress, sparing a life without risking jail.
Saving heroin users from killing themselves is not as good as persuading them to give up heroin entirely. But naloxone is a priceless tool for addressing drug problems. After all, as Dan Bigg notes, you can't cure an addict once he's dead.