Does Narcan Actually Encourage More Drug Abuse?

Two economists found that as states expand access to Narcan, which can bring overdose victims “back to live,” some addicts might keep using drugs, figuring that they can be revived if they overdose. In the Midwest, more Narcan laws were associated with a 14-percent increase in opioid mortality.

With the opioid epidemic claiming more than 100 lives a day in the U.S., every state has a law expanding access to naloxone, known as Narcan. Naloxone is an opioid that is said to bring an overdose victim “back to life.” That led two economists to wonder, does the prospect of not dying from opioids make people more likely to use opioids? And are they more likely to, ultimately, die as a result? Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Anita Mukherjee of the University of Wisconsin looked at the time period before and after different naloxone-access laws were put into place, such as providing legal immunity to people who prescribed or administered the drug and allowing anyone to buy naloxone without a prescription, The Atlantic reports.

After naloxone-access laws take effect, arrests related to the possession and sale of opioids went up, as did opioid-related ER visits. Meanwhile—and most worryingly—there was no impact on the death rate. In the Midwest, the implementation of naloxone laws led to a 14 percent increase in opioid-related mortality. To Doleac, “anytime you make something less dangerous, people are going to do more of it.” The study suggests that heroin users figured they stood a good chance of being revived if they overdosed, so they kept on using. Public health officials were alarmed by Doleac and Mukherjee’s findings, suggesting they might lead cities and states to pull back from providing naloxone freely. Naloxone access is considered a pillar of “harm reduction,” the idea that if people can’t immediately be cured of addiction, as least drugs should be made less dangerous. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner and an advocate for the expansion of access to naloxone, pointed out that just because the laws around naloxone changed doesn’t mean people were able to obtain it more easily right away.