Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill appeared before the county board last week to announce a grant from Lines for Life to equip officers at three agencies with Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, citing officer safety as the reason.
The grant of about $4,000 was issued for safety reasons to the sheriff’s office, as well as The Dalles Police Department and regional jail, Magill told the Wasco County Commission on Feb. 21.
He said the most recent and pressing issue with the opioid epidemic is that narcotics are being found laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid considered 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Due to its strength, fentanyl can cause deadly overdoses just by being absorbed into the skin or inhaled.
“This is the worst thing I’ve seen on the street, ever,” said Magill.
Ninety people die each day in America from overdoses, The Chronicle reported this past November. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., convened all 55 members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in late October to look at ways of combatting the crisis.
President Donald Trump has declared opioid addiction is a national public health emergency.
“In Oregon alone, more people died last year from drug overdoses than from car accidents,” Walden was quoted in The Chronicle. “More people died in the past year from opioid overdoses than the entire Vietnam War (58,220).”
Opioids, also called narcotics, are a class of drugs that produce morphine-like effects and, medically, are primarily used for pain relief. Heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and fentanyl are all considered opioids.
Magill said that the department’s current policy regarding opioid calls is to send two or more officers in case of exposure, so one can treat the other in case of emergency. Narcan gives officers quick and effective means to do so.
Narcan, the branded form of naloxone, is described by the Drug Policy Alliance as a non-narcotic, fast-acting opioid antagonist that blocks the brain cell receptors activated by opioids, effectively reversing an opioid overdose and restoring breathing within two to three minutes of administration, the Drug Policy Alliance presented in a 2016 pamphlet.
Narcan is not known to have any serious negative side effects, not even in cases of a misdiagnosis, Magill said.
Oregon state law has permitted pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription to any individual since 2016, given that the individual has received a brief training on how to properly administer the drug.
The sheriff’s department is working with Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue and North Central Public Health to
locally train officers how to administer the drug, which they will carry in the form of a nasal spray.
The sheriff’s department reached out to Lines for Life, a Portland based substance abuse and suicide prevention organization, to see about funds for getting Narcan since it was too expensive for the department to buy without outside help.
The Lines for Life grant covers the initial cost of equipping Wasco County law enforcement with Narcan, but due to the drug’s two-year shelf life, funds would need to be found to replace doses every two years.
Magill said two years will be enough time for the department to figure out future funding, emphasizing that the importance of Narcan warranted “scrambling” to get the funds to provide it to local law enforcement.
Though the grant was directly given to the sheriff’s department, it is intended to cover the full cost of equipping three agencies.
Oregon State Police is equipping their troopers with the drug as well, though they have their own program set up; and emergency medical services such as ambulances are already carrying doses.
The county board was asked to approve an amendment to the budget permitting the sheriff’s office to receive the grant money. Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the amendment.
While this resource will effectively protect officers in case of an accidental exposure to toxic opioids, it is still an emergency measure that does not address the fact that officers are being repeatedly exposed to dangerous drugs.
The current method for testing unknown narcotics involves an officer breaking a series of vials over the drug, with the resulting color determining what drug they’re dealing with. However, new technology is available that uses infrared to test narcotics through containment, reducing the risk of officers being exposed to dangerous drugs in the first place.
“We’re hoping that that tech is something we can acquire,” Magill said, acknowledging that, at $5,000 a unit, it’s not feasible at this point.
The best the department can do is what it’s doing now: equip its officers with the tools necessary to prevent loss of life in cases of emergency, he said.