A new study has found that a change in the way police respond to drug-related overdose emergencies could contribute to improved outcomes for the victims, as well as the communities where overdoses occur.
Published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the study found that while law enforcement officers often serve as medical first responders, there is a lack of clarity as to what the police can — or should — do at the scene of an overdose.
“Police officers are often limited by available resources or protocol when it comes to responding to overdose,” said principal investigator Traci C. Green, Ph.D., a research scientist in Rhode Island Hospital’s department of emergency medicine.
“While some expressed negative attitudes toward people who use drugs, others were empathetic and simply frustrated with the lack of drug treatment, the cycle of addiction, and the ease with which people can access drugs in their communities.
“Overdose prevention and response, which for some officers included law enforcement-administered naloxone, were viewed as components of community policing and good police-community relations,” she continued.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is the standard antidote used by paramedics to stop an overdose and restore breathing in a victim.
In some communities, police officers are now able to administer naloxone, an effort supported by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy as part of addressing the prescription opioid epidemic, according to the researcher.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by prescription painkillers or opioids. In 2008, there were 14,800 opioid overdose deaths, more than cocaine and heroin combined, according to researchers.
In 2010, more than 12 million people in the U.S. reported using prescription painkillers either without a prescription or to get high.
Opioid pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentynal, are the most common type of drugs responsible for unintentional drug overdose, the researchers note.
These types of overdose have increased significantly in rural and suburban areas, where people have less immediate access to emergency medical care. Providing law enforcement with the tools and training necessary to administer naloxone to reverse a drug overdose could have a significant impact on the death rate from unintentional overdose, Green noted.
“Educating the public about overdose incidents, the prevalence, and the importance of prevention could go a long way toward aligning public health and criminal justice objectives, and ultimately reducing the number of overdose deaths,” Green said.
“In addition to saving lives, providing law enforcement officers with naloxone, and proper training for administration, may also improve the relationships between law enforcement and their respective communities.”