The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
There’s no question — Alaska has a heroin problem. It’s not solely Alaska’s problem; the U.S. as a whole is grappling with a sobering spike in overdoses and abuse of the drug and other opioids. But in a relatively rare show of bipartisanship in Juneau this week, members of the Legislature unanimously passed a bill to help combat drug overdoses, while a provision that would help battle against over-prescribing of opioid drugs is enclosed in another bill working its way through committees in the state capitol.
Senate Bill 23 was sponsored by Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. It would eliminate the potential of civil liability for those providing, prescribing or administering the anti-overdose drug naloxone, known more commonly by the brand name Narcan. It’s somewhat similar to the “good Samaritan” laws protecting those who render first aid to those in need but focuses on the more narrow case of those whose lives are in danger from a drug overdose.
While heroin abuse and overdoses might be foreign problems to many Alaskans, they have dire consequences. Last year, 88 state residents died of drug overdoses, and the number of hospitalizations due to overdoses tripled between 2008 and 2013.
Fortunately, Narcan is relatively easy to administer — it can be delivered either intravenously or as a nasal spray. That makes it less daunting for those without specialized medical knowledge to use in case of an emergency.
The bill’s unanimous passage from the Legislature is a strong sign of its necessity — and its bipartisan support despite its primary sponsor being a minority caucus member is a heartening display of legislators’ desire to do the right thing overcoming their desire to engage in partisan politics.
Stopping overdoses, however, doesn’t address the other component of drug abuse — stanching the supply. Elsewhere in the Legislature, a passage that would require that doctors check an opioid prescription database before issuing the drugs is part of a Medicare overhaul in the Senate. It’s meant to stop those seeking drugs such as morphine or other opiates from bouncing from doctor to doctor until they can find one who will issue them a prescription.
Doctors initially voiced concerns over the all-encompassing nature of the required database checks, and legislators have been responsive in amending the language to make allowance for emergencies and inpatient situations.
There are many facets to Alaska’s struggle with opioid drugs such as heroin, and no single effort will prove comprehensive enough to stem the tide. But by chipping away at the issue with bills like the ones working their way through the Legislature this session — and by displaying a bipartisan will to solve the problem — the state may yet gain the upper hand.