Heroin Hassles

Medical and Legal Issues Keep Overdose Antidote Out of Users' Hands

Around the world and in small underground programs in San Francisco and Chicago, people have begun to resarch (albeit, somewhat informally, sources say) whether naloxone can actually reduce deaths. Italy has the most experience. In 1987, the Italian health ministry decided that naloxone could be sold without a prescription. In 1995, researchers in Torino began distributing the drug with instructions on its use at needle exchange programs. Susanna Ronconi, coordinator of the Torino Outreach Project, says that there is no data yet showing a decrease in the number of deaths, but naloxone is widely accepted and no problems have been reported.

ER physician Sporer believes the advantages of providing naloxone far outweigh the disadvantages. When naloxone works, an addict's return to consciousness is dramatic and almost instantaneous. However, he mentions a final potential complication. "Narcan [the brand name for naloxone] is not totally benign," he says. "There are a small number of people, about 1 percent, who have seizures. They are short-lived and not fatal. Compared to near-certain death, it's an easy choice."

The mother of one 16-year-old girl, who found her daughter dead of a heroin overdose this summer, says it best, her voice shaking: "Never give up on your child. Never." She insists, "I don't think [providing naloxone] would encourage people to use drugs, but it would help families to save the lives of drug users. I think it's a great idea.'

illustration: A. Skwish

Valerie has decided to give up heroin. As of late December, she had gone 48 days drug free.

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