Heroin Antidote Gets in the Hands of Drug Users

April 10, 2008

Download Story
A molecular model of naloxone
Naloxone is a drug that reverses opiate overdoses – it's often used on heroin users. Several states across the country have recently enacted laws protecting those who administer the drug. Now an Illinois lawmaker wants to pass a similar bill The so-called ‘Good Samaritan' protection would expand distribution of the heroin antidote among lay people and drug abusers. Advocates say that will save lives. But these bills are also drawing criticism from the Bush Administration.

On the corner of 47th and Vincennes, Cheryl Hull parks a large silver truck. In no time, people start knocking on the door. Every Thursday Hull greets a steady stream of visitors here.

ambi

Hull doles out clean long needles, short needles, condoms, alcohol pads and cookers. She also tests for hepatitis and AIDS.

HULL: That's why a lot of these people we so close…cause I was an IV drug user, too.

As deputy director of operations for the Chicago Recovery Alliance, Hull has established trust with drug addicts. Enough trust that she slips in messages to heroin addicts about a legal drug called naloxone, also known by its trade name, narcan. This is the drug that can reverse an overdose.

HULL: You have to come back so you can get the narcan training. Actually I got a DVD if you want to you can take it home. You can look at it and that way you'll see how it is. When you come back I can give you some narcan. I know ya'll ain't gonna stand here and look at it. I know you in a hurry.

Heroin user Leon has no objections and puts the video next to his needles.

LEON: No, I don't mind learning.

ambi fades

If an addict ODs, it's up to a friend to call 911. But Hull and other outreach workers say too often that call never gets made since drug users are afraid they'll be picked up for possession. That's why the Recovery Alliance has made it part of its mission to distribute naloxone. And why it insists naloxone needs to be in the hands of addicts. Opiates heroin and Oxycontin latch on to the opiate receptor on the brain to create euphoria.

ZACNY: But unfortunately it also stimulates that part of the brain that tells it to breathe and tells it to breathe slower.

James Zacny is a psychopharmacologist at the University of Chicago Hospital.

ZACNY: What narcan does is it has a stronger bond so it knocks that heroin right off. And so in short order the person starts to breathe again.

Experts say naloxone is a benign drug with no side effects. Parts of California, plus New Mexico and Connecticut have laws that give immunity if something goes wrong from injecting naloxone. But the Bush Administration opposes the use of narcan in non-medical settings.
So far, no one in Illinois has been injured from a naloxone injection or arrested for administering it.

TROTTER: People don't become heroin addicts because they wake up one morning and say hey, this is what I want to do. It is a sickness.

Illinois State Senator Donne E. Trotter introduced a bill in February that says if an individual dies or has complications from naloxone, the person who injected the drug is not held liable.

TROTTER: We have an opiate that can counter that while these individuals hopefully will go into rehab once they have this near death experience because that's what it is.

But some critics worry whether people will really go to rehab if narcan is in a buddy's back pocket. University of Chicago's Zacny supports wider use of narcan but offers caveats. He says it's possible to confuse a heroin overdose with, say, a diabetic coma. Plus …

ZACNY: Narcan by itself is not good enough. You have to give narcan and you have to call 911. He says the drug might only last 45 minutes. And if the first responder walks away, the person who OD may become re-sedated from the opiate -- and die.

ambi

Back on the distribution truck, Cheryl Hull reflects on how when she copped heroin, there were no clean needles or narcan. She's been clean 16 years now but says she has seen plenty of people overdose. She hopes Trotter's bill passes.

HULL: Cause if you don't, people gonna die. People gonna die.

ambi door opens

And Hull insists there's no reason why an addict can't safely administer the drug if necessary. Hull has taught several people how to give narcan, including recovering addict Floretta Flemister.

Flemister says she has already had to use that training when she was with a man who overdosed. She says he popped back to life after she stuck the narcan needle in his muscle. She wonders what the fuss is about giving the drug. It's easy, she says.

FLEMISTER: All you do is stick it in the person's muscle like you giving insulin. Same way you do insulin. That's how you do that.

The Illinois Public Health Department is still reviewing the drug.

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.