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Communities should follow Buffalo and equip police with overdose antidote

The City of Buffalo stands as a model for other local municipalities to follow after committing to train its police officers on how to administer Narcan, a powerful drug that can save lives by reversing the effects of a drug overdose.

The drug, dispensed through a nasal spray, has been successful in treating potentially fatal overdoses of heroin and opioids, including OxyContin and Vicodin.

The antidote is becoming an essential tool in the war against the abuse of prescription painkillers and their substitute, heroin. As News staff reporter Lou Michel’s Feb. 2 story outlined, too often when those who became hooked on painkillers have trouble acquiring more they are turning to heroin.

This has led to a spike in heroin overdoses. So far this year, there have been eight heroin overdose deaths in Erie County, and a ninth from another drug. Last year, 29 people died of heroin overdoses in the county, nearly a third more than in 2012.

Mayor Byron W. Brown gets credit for addressing the problem when he approached Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda six months ago and asked him to look into equipping police officers with Narcan, generically known as naloxone. It has been used by first responders locally, including Rural/Metro, and by police departments in Suffolk County, New Mexico, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

The drug, which costs $22 a dose, has saved lives and it has no effects on people who have not overdosed on an opiate. Training takes three to eight hours, depending on the experience of each group of officers.

Heroin use has been on the rise, not just in the city but in suburbs all across the country. In a tragic irony, The News’ story on the widespread use of heroin coincided with the death of heralded actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose.

Hoffman’s death had the celebrity effect of increasing awareness of the problem of heroin and painkiller abuse. The call to action had already occurred.

The News’ groundbreaking 2011 series “Rx for Danger” about the meteoric rise in the abuse of painkillers and their prevalence in Western New York helped lead the State Legislature to pass laws providing for electronic monitoring of prescription drugs in New York.

BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York formed a community outreach initiative called with more than 50 partners backing the effort. The organization’s $1.2 million public awareness campaign began last fall.

There are no easy answers to painkiller abuse, or how to stem the switch to cheaper heroin. The real fix is in continued education and outreach to potential abusers, but police should be prepared to intervene when that message gets lost.

Other localities need to follow Buffalo’s lead in training and equipping their officers with this lifesaving antidote.