ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico on Thursday became the first U.S. state to require all local and state law enforcement agencies to provide officers with antidote kits as the state works to curb deaths from opioid and heroin overdoses.
Surrounded by advocates and parents who had lost children to overdoses, Gov. Susana Martinez signed legislation that was approved unanimously by lawmakers during their recent session.
The former prosecutor and two-term Republican governor said she has seen firsthand what drug abuse can do to families and communities.
"We're making progress but it's never enough," she said. "We have to keep working hard at this problem and reducing the number of overdoses. Signing this bill is an important step to fight the scourge of drug abuse and overdose fatalities."
New Mexico has been working for years to curb what has only recently been identified by the highest levels of the federal government as a national epidemic.
The state was the first in 2001 to increase access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and a few years later it led the way to release people from legal liability when they assist in overdose situations.
New Mexico also was the first state to allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription in an effort to expand access to the life-saving drug.
Other measures enacted by New Mexico in recent years include requiring all licensed clinicians to undergo extra training for prescribing painkillers and the creation of a system to track prescriptions for pain medication so addicts cannot obtain new prescriptions from unsuspecting doctors.
Martinez said the comprehensive approach is starting to show results.
In 2014, New Mexico had one of the highest overdose death rates in the nation, second only to West Virginia. More recent health statistics show the state is now ranked 44th.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were involved in more than 33,000 deaths nationally in 2015.
"This doesn't discriminate," said state Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, the Albuquerque Republican who sponsored the legislation with Democratic colleagues.
"Every community, every county, every ethnicity, every socio-economic status, everybody is affected by this epidemic and that's why this bill is critically important," she said after the signing ceremony.
Advocates call the legislation cutting-edge, saying it targets those who are most at risk.
Joanna Katzman, a neurologist and director of the University of New Mexico Pain Center, was instrumental in helping craft the legislation after years of working on the problem.
She said expanding access to anti-overdose medication saves lives and increases recovery opportunities for addicts.
Aside from outfitting first-responders with anti-overdose kits, the legislation requires federally-certified addiction treatment centers to provide patients with education plus two doses of naloxone and a prescription for the antidote.
The state's prisons and jails will be required to do the same for at-risk inmates upon their release as long as funding and supplies are available.
While the bill does not include any new funding, public safety officials said each police force in New Mexico receives annual state funding per officer to help with training, equipment and supplies.
A portion of that can be used to purchase naloxone kits, which cost roughly $70 each. It can be administered with a nasal spray or via injection.
Grant funding will also be sought to fully implement expanded access, Barnes said.
In New Mexico's largest city, law enforcement is already gearing up. Albuquerque city councilors recently voted to equip at least half of the city's police vehicles with naloxone by the fall and the rest by the end of this year.
In northern New Mexico, which has some of the highest overdose rates, Santa Fe County deputies began carrying naloxone in 2015. State police officers in at-risk areas also carry the drug and more will have access by the end of the year.