Stopping the Overdose Epidemic

In May, Alysa Ivy, a 21-year-old Hudson, Wis., woman, died in a hotel room from a heroin overdose. Three months later, Alexandra Stellhorn, a 21-year-old Waukesha, Wis., honor student, died of similar causes.

Wisconsin state legislator Rep. John Nygren almost lost his daughter to an overdose four years ago. Had it not been for the girl’s mother returning home to close the windows before an oncoming storm, she most likely would have died, despite the fact that she was using with friends.

“When I got there, the friends had all left and she was alone. Addicts tend to be selfish. It’s all about them,” Nygren said. “It’s all about their next high. If someone overdoses, they don’t stick around to help them.”

Nygren is trying to bring 911 Good Samaritan Laws to Wisconsin to help curb an increasing surge of opioid overdoses, whether from heroin or prescription drugs. The legislation is made up of four bills he calls the HOPE Agenda, or Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education.

“We in no way think this is a silver bullet to fix the problem, but it’s a step,” Nygren said. “Wisconsin is not alone in this problem.”

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An ‘Epidemic’ of Overdoses

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that over the past decade prescription drug overdoses have “reached epidemic levels."

Drug-related overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans ages 25 to 64.

In 2010, 60 percent of the 38,329 deaths caused by drug overdose in the U.S. were attributed to prescription drugs, and that number has risen four-fold over the last decade. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that prescription drug abuse affects young adults aged 18 to 25 most often, and caused 3,000 deaths in 2010. For every death, there were 66 emergency room visits.

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From Pill to Needle

“How we went from marijuana as the drug to worry about with teenagers to heroin is pretty scary,” Nygren said. “We know how it got there.”

While heroin isn’t normally considered a drug of the suburbs, prescription drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin are being labeled gateway drugs to heroin.

Experts say the increase in heroin use is linked to prescription opioid painkiller abuse. Young people will often become addicted to painkillers and progress to heroin—which gives the same euphoric high—when pills are hard to come by.

“I know that’s how my daughter started,” Nygren said. “About 90 to 95 percent of heroin users begin that way.”

The most alarming trend is heroin's tendency to cross geographic, socioeconomic, and racial lines.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heroin use rose by 75 percent between 2007 and 2011, with an 80 percent increase in first-time use among 12- to 17-year-olds since 2002.

At one time, Florida was the largest distributor of illegal pill prescriptions. Prior to legal crackdowns on these “pill mills,” doctors there filled prescriptions for 89 percent of all Oxycodone sold in 2010, according to reporting by The New York Times.

Read More: How 'Oxy' Has Become the Heroin of the 21st Century »

Now that there are restrictions in place for doctors giving sham prescriptions, opioid pills are harder to find.

“Without access to these strong painkillers, they’re going to look for something else,” Christopher Crosby, CEO of The Watershed Addiction Treatment Programs in Delray Beach, Fla., said.

Would Good Samaritan Laws Decrease Drug Deaths?

Every day, 105 people die from a drug overdose, according to CDC estimates. Another 6,748 visit an emergency room for the misuse or abuse of drugs.

Karen Perry lost her 21-year-old son to an overdose.

Now, as the founder and executive director of West Palm Beach, Fla.’s Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education (NOPE) program, which helped pass Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan Law last year, she says educating children about drug abuse and overdose is a first step.

“We’re trying to get them to speak up if they know someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol, or if they see someone with the signs of an overdose, they’re willing to call 911 without fear of getting into trouble,” she said. “We know that across the country, it’s the same thing. People are afraid to pick up the phone, mainly young students because they’re typically using with them and they’re afraid to get into trouble.”

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With 911 shield laws, that’s less of an issue.

Fourteen states and Washington, D.C. have passed Good Samaritan Laws for drug users. While they don’t cover drug dealing and other such practices, they do shield those who seek medical attention for others who are overdosing. They most often shield a person from misdemeanor crimes, such as minor drug possession, possession of paraphernalia, or being under the influence.

New Mexico was the first state to pass a shield law in 2007, and Nygren wants Wisconsin to be the next.

“Chances are users aren’t alone when they were shooting up,” he said. “It’s really about changing the mindset of people doing the drugs.”

Washington State passed its law in 2010, partially shielding drug users who call 911 during an overdose. In a survey at a needle exchange clinic, 42 percent of opiate users said they’d witnessed an overdose in the last year, but 911 was called during only half of those incidents. After being informed of the Good Samaritan laws, 88 percent of users said they would be more likely to call 911 during future overdoses.

The proposed laws in Wisconsin are similar, with four main provisions:

  • 911 Good Samaritan: gives limited immunity from possession or paraphernalia charges for drug users who call 911 during an overdose.
  • Narcan: allows emergency personnel to use the drug Narcan, which reverses the effects of fatal drug overdoses.
  • Clean Sweep Programs: this bill would expand drug turn-in programs to narcotics like heroin without punishment for possession.
  • ID Requirements: requires pharmacists to ask for identification for Class 2 and 3 controlled substances, such as opioid painkillers.

What Isn't Working

While shield laws help people call 911 without fear of punishment, many repeat users—including Nygren's daughter, who is currently incarcerated—aren’t getting the help they really need.

“Simply sending people to prison isn’t working,” Nygren said.

Many small towns and rural areas don’t have adequate treatment facilities. This is evident in Marinette, Wis., where 80 drug offenders sent to prison were put on parole and re-offended within one year.

“It’s just a revolving door,” Nygren said. “When you have a zero percent success rate, you have to start looking at other options.”