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By Mary Winter

A Minnesota state lawmaker who lost her 23-year-old daughter to a heroin overdose in 2007 carried legislation this past spring to help prevent similar deaths.

Georgia Senator Renee Unterman, left, talks with Minnesota Senator Chris Eaton at Wednesday's session on "Opioids and Overdoses," where both were speakers.Senator Chris Eaton (DFL) was one of four panelists at Wednesday’s “Opioids and Overdoses” session at the 40th annual NCSL Legislative Summit in Minneapolis, hosted by the Law and Criminal Justice Committee of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Eaton told the audience that her daughter, who overdosed in the back seat of a car, likely would have survived had she immediately received naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of heroin and opioids, which are prescription painkillers.

Her daughter, Ariel Eaton-Willson, did get naloxone after she was taken to the hospital, “but it was too late,” Eaton told the audience. Had Eaton’s daughter immediately received an injection of naloxone from the police who found her, or from the man she was with at the time, Eaton said her daughter would have lived.

Often, the people who are with a person who overdoses don’t call police or emergency responders because they fear they will be arrested for drugs themselves. Eaton’s bill reduces that potential.

“Under this bill, if you call 9-1-1, you are immune from prosecution if there is less than three grams of heroin at the scene,” Eaton said. The bill has also made authorities aware of the need for all emergency workers and law enforcement personnel to carry and be ready to administer naloxone, which can be injected or given in a nasal spray.

Today, in Minnesota, many police, deputies and first responders routinely carry naloxone in their vehicles, “and we’ve saved lives already,” Eaton said.

Besides Eaton, speakers included Dr. Gavin Bart, director of the Division of Addiction Medicine a the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minnesota, Robert Hill of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Virginia, and Georgia Senator Renee S. Unterman (R). The moderators were Colorado Senator Irene Aguilar (D) and Utah Representative Curtis M. Oda (R).

In Georiga, Unterman sponsored a 9-1-1 Medical Amnesty Bill similar to Eaton’s. “People should not have to choose between saving a life and going to jail,” Unterman said. She added it was not an easy bill to pass because Georgia is so conservative. She credited a grassroots movement of mothers who had lost children to drugs and a network of college students for its success.

The 90-minute session focused on the explosion of heroin and prescription painkiller abuse in the past two decades and how states are trying to combat it.

In 2011, more than 41,300 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2011—more than were killed in traffic accidents.

“Opioid deaths are a major problem,” said Hill, of the DEA. Deaths from prescription drug overdoses—mainly painkillers—“are more than heroin and cocaine combined.”

Hill said that the painkiller Vicodin is the most prescribed drug in the United States, “and the most abused.”

America’s dependency on painkillers is the result of a “perfect storm” of factors, Hill said, including mass marketing, the widespread myth that a pill can solve all our ills, and patients’ relentless pressure on doctors and hospitals to give them pain medication.

Southern states have the highest rates of prescription abuse, he said. Nationwide, 4 billion painkiller prescriptions were written in 2012.

Hill said a powerful new generation of painkiller, Zohydro, is now on the market and “is going to wreak havoc.”

He said heroin use is reaching an epidemic because it’s cheaper than painkillers. Abusers start with Vicodin, but develop a tolerance and move onto stronger, more expensive painkillers. A Zohydro habit, he said, could run $400 to $900 a day, while heroin “is $10 a bag or less in any city in America.” DEA heroin seizures are up 87 percent, he said.

Dr. Gavin Bart called naloxone “an incredibly effective, inexpensive approach to overdoses of prescription painkillers” that many states, wisely, are making available to the public. Thousands of lay people have been trained to administer it, he said.

Bart said states such as Florida have dramatically reduced prescription painkiller abuse and deaths with laws that crack down on pill mills. Almost every state also has a prescription drug monitoring database, which Bart called “an effective tool but not enough.”

“We need to think of treatment strategies,” he said. Addiction is a brain disease that needs much more research, he said. With behavioral therapy alone, 80 percent of addicts will relapse within two years, he said. Detoxification alone also has a high rate of relapse.

Bart said studies of addicts who receive a regimen of regular monthly anti-abuse medications such as naloxone are promising. “We need to increase access to that kind of ongoing treatment,” he said.

Mary Winter is assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.

Email Mary.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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