Federal drug czar endorses medication for first responders to treat heroin overdoses

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The nation’s drug czar Tuesday endorsed the use by first responders of a wonder drug called naloxone that revives heroin users who have overdosed and encouraged a response that involves prevention and treatment as well as crime-fighting.

“It’s clear that we are not going to arrest our way out of this drug problem,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a conference call with reporters.

In New York City, a police officer working under a pilot program two weeks ago used naloxone in a nasal spray to save the life of someone who was overdosing. And Boston’s mayor this morning announced that first responders in his city will carry the medication, known as Narcan.

In Pittsburgh, only paramedics are authorized to administer Narcan, Public Safety Director Michael Huss said. Authorization for firefighters or police officers to administer overdose medication would have to come from the city’s medical director as well as the state Department of Health, he said.

“There’s no plans on the way right now to do it,” Mr. Huss said. “I’m not saying it couldn’t be done or they couldn’t do it. But it would be a significant change.”

Asked about the recent outbreak of overdose deaths in Western Pennsylvania from heroin laced with the painkiller fentanyl, Mr. Kerlikowske said the situation underscores the dangers facing any addict who buys heroin.

“No one is ever really sure when they’re purchasing heroin what they’re getting. What has that heroin been laced with, or what has that heroin been cut with that can actually make it more dangerous than it already is,” Mr. Kerlikowske said. ‘You never have any idea what’s in that package.”

Roughly two dozen people have died in recent weeks in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland counties after using heroin mixed with fentanyl.

Also during the conference call, Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said his office is watching European trials involving the supervised use of medicinal heroin by addicts.

“Certainly, we’ve been intrigued by the studies coming mostly out of Europe looking at heroin administration in a controlled manner or a supervised manner, particularly with patients who don’t respond to other forms of treatment,” Dr. Compton said.

No such studies are planned in the U.S. , however, he said.

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.

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