President Joe Biden’s drug czar will propose changing state and local laws to give more people access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone as the country continues to battle a rampaging overdose epidemic that now claims more than 100,000 lives each year.
Rahul Gupta, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is expected to make the proposal when he sends the administration’s first national drug control strategy to Congress on Thursday. The administration says the strategy will be the first to focus on harm reduction, marking a move away from drug control plans with a law enforcement-focused approach.
“The single most important step we can take to save lives right now is to get naloxone into the hands of everyone who needs it without fear or judgment,” Gupta told reporters on Wednesday.
The plan also emphasizes expanding access to drug treatment programs – currently only 1 in 10 people who need treatment get it – and disrupting finances of criminal organizations that ship illegal drugs to the United States.
Harm reduction strategies, including expanding access to naloxone and needle exchange programs, are often controversial. Conservatives argue that the programs encourage drug use, although the widespread nature of the opioid epidemic has increased acceptance of the programs.
Naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse the effect of an overdose and can be given intravenously or as a nasal spray. The drug has become a major tool in reducing deaths caused by the opioid epidemic, but the administration says some states and localities are still restricting its sale. And even in places where the drug is freely available, it doesn’t always make it into the hands of vulnerable populations, including the homeless.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12 months ending November 2021, the most recent period for which data is available. available. Two-thirds of those deaths involved synthetic opioids, including fentanyl. Drug overdose deaths have doubled in the past six years.
The move to make naloxone freely available should attract some Republican support. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of senators and House members led by West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R) have written letters to seven major makers of the drug, encouraging them to apply to sell it over the counter.
“Given the magnitude of the need right now, it has never been more important to adopt opioid overdose prevention and reversal strategies at scale,” the lawmakers wrote. “This includes steps to increase access to affordable naloxone, which is a proven and effective tool for reducing medical emergencies, drug overdoses and deaths.”