As the heroin epidemic continues to worsen in Kodiak and statewide, help could be on the way in the form of a new law meant to help save lives in the event of a drug overdose.
Senate Bill 23, which received final legislative approval in the House on March 7 and was signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker on March 14, allows and encourages the use of the anti-opioid overdose drug naloxone, sold under the brand names Evzio and Narcan.
Naloxone, available as an injection or nasal spray, reverses the effects of an overdose by attaching “to the same parts of the brain that receive heroin and other opioids, and (blocking) the opioids for 30-90 minutes to reverse the respiratory depression that would otherwise lead to death,” according to Narcan drug information.
In addition to heroin, certain prescription drugs including hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine are considered opioids. Naloxone is not an effective remedy for overdoses of non-opioid drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine.
The new law provides protection against civil liabilities for those who prescribe naloxone to opioid users and their friends or family, provided the recipient is trained to administer the drug by the prescriber or an opioid overdose program. It also protects providers of naloxone and anyone who administers an opioid overdose drug to a person believed to be suffering from an opioid overdose.
It does not provide protection for “damages resulting from gross negligence or reckless or intentional misconduct.”
The law also establishes standards for independent dispensing of opioid overdose drugs by pharmacists, including completion of board-approved opioid overdose training.
Statewide, heroin-related deaths more than tripled from 2008 to 2013, according to a report by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The department had called for an increase in availability of naloxone in a July 2015 report on the impact of heroin use in Alaska.
According to Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who voted in favor of the law, “If you have a family member that’s addicted to heroin, you’ll at least have the opportunity to save their life if they overdose.”
Sen. Gary Stevens said the law should increase availability of the drug and potentially “save our children.”
“One of the problems was getting drug suppliers to carry it,” he said.
Most side effects of naloxone are mild, but they can be more severe and potentially life-threatening for children. It may also lead to withdrawal in individuals with opioid dependency. Also, the drug does not work long enough to outlast the opioid in most cases.
For these reasons, those who are given naloxone should still receive treatment by a healthcare provider, according to Narcan drug warning information.
“The benefits of this drug outweigh the few risks that were involved,” said Brian Narog, chief pharmacist for the Kodiak Area Native Association.
The KANA pharmacy will likely be a provider of the drug, Narog said, but all medicines stocked by the pharmacy must be approved by the U.S. Indian Health Service and by board members.
He anticipates they will follow the same protocols as the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. A spokesperson for the ANMC said naloxone is currently available there by prescription.
Kodiak’s Safeway pharmacy, along with all Safeway pharmacies in Alaska, will carry the drug, according to Safeway communications and public affairs manager Tairsa Worman.
“Anyone with a valid prescription will be able to get naloxone. This includes those who may need it for themselves or someone who may be in a position to assist another individual during an overdose,” Worman wrote in an email.
“While naloxone is available in several forms, our pharmacies carry Narcan Nasal Spray, which provides an easy method of delivery at home,” she wrote.
Because the pharmacy at the Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center does not serve the general public, there will be no changes in policy there, said marketing and communications specialist Carlie Franz.
Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.