By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama Legislature routinely decides where billions of dollars are spent and on what it is spent on. The legislature decides who pays taxes and how much. They decide what is and what is not illegal and what will get you sent to prison. With the notable exception of the death penalty, the State legislature rarely decides matters of life and death. Wednesday, the Senate Health Committee did consider legislation that if passed could actually save lives here in the real world of Alabama communities.
Jefferson County is in the grip of an illegal drug epidemic. This is nothing new. Cocaine, crack, methamphetamines, “angel dust”, opium, etc., have all taken their turns as the drug of choice for addicts over the decades. Heroin however has made a dramatic comeback in Alabama. According to original reporting by the Alabama Media Group’s Carol Robinson, in 2010 only 12 people died from heroin overdoses in Jefferson County. That jumped to 30 in 2011. 57 in 2012. 58 in 2013 and an incredible 123 confirmed heroin deaths in 2014, with the drug suspected in even more deaths. The City of Birmingham alone had 55 deaths. The average age of death for the victims is 36. 88 percent of the victims are White.
Nobody can wave a magic wand and make heroin users realize that life is best faced sober and end their addiction; but naloxone hydrochloride in the hands of the first responders on the scene of an overdose can save lives.
On Wednesday, May 20, the Senate Health committee gave a favorable report to SB318 sponsored by State Senator Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia). House Bill 208 sponsored by Representative Allen Treadaway (R-Morris) has already passed the House. SB318 is the Senate version of the same legislation.
Sen. Waggoner told his fellow Senators, “We have a situation in Jefferson County that is not good.”
The legislation would authorize a physician or dentist to prescribe naloxone hydrochloride (an opioid antagonist) to an individual at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose or to an individual who is in a position to assist another individual at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose including the family member of an addict. The bill provides immunity to a physician or dentist who prescribes naloxone hydrochloride, the pharmacist who fills the prescription and to an individual who administers the drug in a good faith effort to try to save someone’s life. The bill also provides immunity from prosecution for possession or consumption of alcohol for an individual under the age of 21 or certain controlled substance offenses by any individual who seeks medical assistance for another individual who is experiencing an overdose. The bill also require relevant training for certain law enforcement officers.
Dr. Mark Wilson, the Jefferson County Health Officer, thanked Rep. Allen Treadaway for bringing the legislation. Wilson said that police officers could carry the kits in their squad cars. It would also allow family members of an addict to obtain the kit.
Sen, Waggoner said that third party prescribing is currently not sanctioned but this is a special situation.
Dr. Wilson said that the bill provides some limited immunity to persons in an overdose situation.
Dr. Wilson said that in 80 percent of these cases when someone goes unconscious and appears to be overdosing their comrades flee the scene and leave that person to live or die on their own. It is hoped that by giving those people limited immunity if they make an effort to save the overdose victim more lives can be saved.
Dr. Wilson said that naloxone is a generic has been around for 50 years. It has saved a lot of lives in other states. Over 10,000 lives have been saved to this point by the drug.
State Senator Jim McClendon (R-Springville) asked what if the officer arrived thought the person was having a drug overdose and they were really in a diabetic coma.
Wilson said that naloxone won’t hurt you. It would have no effect on that situation; but if you are in an opoid coma it will start you breathing again.
Senator Larry Stutts (R) asked, “Do you have long term data for those patients who are saved?
Wilson said that heroin is a tough addiction to overcome. For some when the paramedics come and revive them that is the impetus that gets them into rehab.
Wilson said, “This is a problem now in Shelby and Tuscaloosa Counties and will go statewide.” Wilson said that a few minutes time will save lives. The drug once administered will work within seconds.
Dr. Wilson said that they will have to train people and get it distributed.
Senators asked if police departments would be mandated to do this.
Wilson said we did not mandate it. This does not require anybody to carry it but this allows them to use the kits without legal liability.
The kits cost $45 each.
Sen. William Beasley asked if making hydrocodone a class II drug increased the heroin use?
Wilson said that crackdowns on other drugs and making drugs difficult to turn into a powder has made heroin cheaper and many people are turning to heroin.
Representative Allen Treadaway is a police Captain for the City of Birmingham.
Captain Treadaway said, “We have an epidemic on our hands.” I worked for years on the streets as a police officer. You never saw heroin. Now these officers are running into it every day. Heroin is available and it is very cheap and very pure. It is selling for about $15 a dose.
On the bill, Treadaway said, “I know it is going to save lives.”
Sen. McClendon told Treadaway, “Thank you for bringing this. I appreciate your service for the city of Birmingham.”
The bill received a favorable report and now awaits action by the full Senate.