What Kansas could do about the heroin epidemic

The rise of heroin has caught the attention of various policy groups, organizations and government agencies.

Here are some changes groups suggest Kansas could make to fight the heroin epidemic:

▪ Allow access to an overdose-reversing drug: Kansas is one of six states that do not allow doctors to prescribe an overdose-reversing drug to addicts and their families and friends, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The drug is called naloxone and is currently carried by some EMS personnel on ambulances in Kansas. But ambulances often don’t arrive until the person is already dead, because of how fast the user’s brain shuts down after too much heroin is injected.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that states expand access to naloxone.

Timothy Scanlan, a retired medical doctor who specialized in addiction in Wichita, said some critics question whether access to naloxone would encourage drug use.

“I don’t think those are really valid points,” he said. “The fact is, people are going to use drugs.”

He later added: “This can certainly save people’s lives.”

▪ Pass a Good Samaritan law: Kansas does not shield drug users from criminal charges if they call for help when someone else is overdosing.

Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C., have Good Samaritan laws that offer some protections for people who call 911. Without the law, some drug users may fear legal backlash and not call for help, even though it could save someone’s life.

▪ Make hard-to-abuse painkillers a first option: The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative policy group, released a report Jan. 27 encouraging lawmakers to address prescription painkiller addiction by changing the prescribing habits of doctors.

Many doctors first prescribe the standard OxyContin pill that people can crush, snort or inject.

The ALEC proposal calls on legislators to remove any regulatory barriers that would prevent patients from first receiving the uncrushable, uninjectable formula before resorting to the kind that people can abuse.

▪ Expand access to treatment: The CDC recommends that states expand access to treatment in order to address the heroin epidemic.

Right now, the state uses a federal block grant to pay for rehab for people who don’t have insurance or can’t afford treatment. But the demand outweighs the dollars available. And rehab centers say the grant doesn’t cover the costs of treatment for patients who do receive the funds.

But drug use can cost society in areas beyond the cost of treatment.

Nationally, drug use costs society $55.7 billion each year from medical expenses, criminal justice costs and loss of productivity, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn