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Study suggests police treatment could reduce deaths by drug overdose

Police officers’ response can greatly affect whether a person survives a drug overdose, a new study led by University researchers found.

The research was published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence at the end of the summer.

“Overdose is the leading cause of unintentional death among adults, and opioid pain relievers cause more than half of these unintentional overdoses,” said Traci Green, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology and the study’s lead author.

Opioid pain relievers can be dangerous because they “bind to the brain’s receptors, cut off the flow of oxygen and then cause respiratory failure” in the case of overdose, said Nickolas Zaller, assistant professor of medicine and one of the study’s co-authors.

To treat overdoses, Naloxone is often administered by Emergency Medical Services, Zaller said. The drug blocks opioids from reaching key neuroreceptors, so that oxygen can continue to flow, he said.

Police officers are often the first people on the scene of drug overdoses, but they very often do not know how to medically treat them, according to the study. Law enforcement officials are also not allowed to administer Naloxone, Green said.

The researchers focused their study in suburban and rural areas of Rhode Island and Connecticut, where there have been significant numbers of fatal drug overdoses. They interviewed and surveyed different populations in these regions, including drug users and police officers, to try to determine the cause of the high overdose mortality rates.

The researchers determined that the lack of overdose response options, as well as the lack of addiction treatment facilities, the perpetuation of drug addiction and the easy accessibility to prescription drugs, exacerbate law enforcement officials’ frustration with their inability to prevent fatal overdoses.

In its analysis, the study suggests that law enforcement officials should be allowed to administer Naloxone because they are often the first ones to respond to overdoses.

But there have been some problems implementing the less-restricted administration of Naloxone due to the drug’s high cost.

The study recommends the implementation of Good Samaritan laws, which give people legal protection when they call medical services to respond to drug overdoses.

By implementing these laws, Zaller said, more lives would be saved.

Given the persistent stigma against drug users, law enforcement officers also need to have more training so they can approach overdose situations with sensitivity, Green said.

If public health and public safety merge, awareness about how to respond will increase, as will prevention of drug overdoses, Green said.