In response to the growing opioid crisis—both throughout the United States and in Arizona—local law enforcement agencies are equipping their officers with NARCAN, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, particularly during an overdose.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department is now including NARCAN, the brand name of the drug naloxone, in their deputies’ individual first aid kits. While NARCAN can be administered in multiple ways, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department will deliver the drug with a nasal spray.
This isn’t entirely new for all local police departments throughout the Greater Tucson Metro Area. The Marana Police Department has equipped its officers with nasal spray NARCAN for over a year, and the Oro Valley Police Department has deployed the drug since last summer.
“All our officers are equipped with it, since they handle drugs that can be laced with fentanyl,” said OVPD Sgt. Carmen Trevizo.
Fentanyl is an opioid pain medication, around 100 times stronger than morphine. It is also made and sold illegally for use as a recreational drug, and in 2016 was linked to more than 20,000 overdose deaths in the country.
In his 2018 State of the State Address, Governor Doug Ducey declared a public health emergency in Arizona due to opioid overdoses, saying “It’s time to call this what it is—an emergency.”
A report from the Governor’s Office on the “Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act” stated over 5,000 Arizonans suffered a suspected opioid overdose from June 2017 to January 2018. Of these overdoses, 993 happened in Pima county, the second highest of any county in Arizona, behind Maricopa with 3,114 overdoses.
In this same period of time, Arizona emergency medical services and law enforcement administered over 3,000 doses of NARCAN outside of hospitals. Most of these uses were at departments in Maricopa County, but the medicine is now making its way into Pima.
Opioids are primarily used to relieve pain, often producing morphine-like effects. However, most are controlled substances because of their highly addictive properties. Common opioid prescriptions include vicodin, hydrocodone, norco, Percocet, OxyContin and more. When used illegally and recreationally, opioids can cause euphoric effects.
An opioid overdose occurs when the chemical level of opioids in the body becomes toxic, resulting in lowered consciousness, small pupils, respiratory depression and even seizures. NARCAN combats overdoses by blocking opioids from attaching to the body’s receptors.
Before deputies in Pima County carry NARCAN, they are trained in how to recognize the symptoms of an opioid overdose, and how to administer the spray.
According to PCSD Deputy James Allerton, the training protocol for recognizing an opioid overdose and administering NARCAN will be taught as part of a broader day-long officer training event, due to happen later in January.
“We can’t say exactly how long it will take to get everyone trained,” Allerton said. “But training will start this month.”
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department already carries NARCAN in police substations and labs, but after the training, the drug will be available out in the field for this first time. The drug will be provided by the Arizona Department of Health Services at no cost to the Sheriff’s Department.
This local step is just the latest in a state-wide effort to combat Arizona’s opioid crisis. In 2018, the Arizona Department of Health Services trained more than 1,200 first responders to carry and administer naloxone and provided more than 5,000 naloxone kits to law enforcement agencies to help reverse overdoses.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Arizona fares comparatively well in opioid-related overdose deaths, placing in the bottom half of states. In Arizona, there are 11.4 opioid-related overdose deaths per 100,000 residents every year. West Virginia suffers the most, with 43.4 deaths per 100,000 residents.
Pima County Sheriff’s Department accepts that this is not a cure for the opioid crisis, but a step in the right direction, stating in a press release: “While this is not a substitute for emergency medical care, the Sheriff’s Department is making NARCAN available to our deputies as a potential life-saving tool.”