Missouri state Rep. Dave Hinson has seen first-hand what a lifesaver a heroin antidote can be.
Hinson, R-St. Clair, is a paramedic based in north St. Louis County. Just recently, he said, he used the antidote to save the life of a homeless man at a Metrolink stop who had apparently overdosed on heroin.
“It’s pretty simple to identify a heroin overdose, with the pinpoint pupils,” said Hinson. If the antidote is given soon enough – before the user has stopped breathing for several minutes – the effects of the heroin can be swiftly reversed.
On Thursday, Hinson was among a bipartisan group of legislators who joined Gov. Jay Nixon at the High Ridge Fire Department, where Nixon conducted a ceremonial signing of a bill that allows law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians to obtain the antidote, called naloxone. The bill permits first-responders to administer the antidote once they’ve undergone training, and allows licensed drug distributors or pharmacies to sell naloxone to first responders.
Currently, paramedics must have an order from their medical directors before they can stock or administer the antidote.
Dr. Justin Moody, medical director for some St. Louis area EMS agencies, said the antidote needs to be on hand and preferably used before a heroin user stops breathing. Once breathing has stopped, brain damage from lack of oxygen occurs within six or seven minutes.
Said Nixon: “This legislation can save precious, life-saving minutes by putting an effective heroin overdose antidote directly into the hands of trained law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. Missouri first responders have a track record of saving lives in all types of emergencies. This will allow them to provide additional critical assistance as they respond to heroin overdoses.”
Nixon said the bill, HB2040, was spawned by the growing awareness of rapid growth of heroin use, particularly among the young. In 2004, he said, the state saw 31 cases of deadly heroin overdoses. By 2011, that number had grown to 222.
In 2013, there were 15 such deaths just in Jefferson County, the governor’s home turf.
“This virulent drug knows no social, economic or geographic boundaries,” the governor said. “I think all of us have been shaken by the power and the deadly nature’’ of heroin’s resurgence.
The bill also is a rare piece of legislation that passed unanimously in the Missouri House and Senate. State Rep. Stephen Lynch, R-Waynesville, was the chief sponsor.
Lynch previously helped run a furniture and appliance store, and admits having little knowledge of heroin. But he has seen evidence in his rural district, which includes Fort Leonard Wood, how the growing use of heroin can destroy lives.
“We have an epidemic,’’ Lynch said. When asked how he got involved, Lynch answered, “It was God. He put this bill in my hands.”
Along with Hinson, Lynch worked with state Reps. Mike Frame and Jeff Roorda, both Jefferson County Democrats, who have sought legislation for years that addresses various aspects of the illegal drug problem. Roorda, a former police officer, recalled working undercover 20 years ago to make his first heroin buy. At the time, he said, the drug was rarely used because it had to be injected with needles. Now, said Roorda, heroin is distributed in a form that’s snorted through the nose. “It’s in our neighborhoods, it knows no bounds,’’ Roorda said. “It’s a poison that’s everywhere.”
Not all of the legislators agree on what to do next. Some seek to make the antidote even more readily available, while others want to focus on drug treatment or ways to discourage drug use.
Nixon acknowledged those differences, but emphasized that allowing first-responders greater access to the antidote is “clearly the right first step.”