Opinion: Overdose death rates have tripled since 1990

By Dr. Larry Wolk

Since 2001, Aug. 31 has marked International Overdose Awareness Day. In 2013, thanks to Gov. John Hickenlooper, Aug. 31 also is Colorado Overdose Awareness Day. On this day, we take time to raise awareness of overdoses, reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths, educate the public on prevention and acknowledge the grief felt by families and friends of those who died prematurely because of a drug overdose.

Dr. Larry Wolk

Dr. Larry Wolk

 An overdose occurs when a person’s body is unable to process the amount of a drug or drugs in his system. When the drug is an opioid pain reliever or heroin, a person will experience respiratory depression, depriving the brain of oxygen, and eventually a loss of consciousness. Without oxygen, the heart stops beating and the person dies. Timely recognition of overdose signs and symptoms is essential to keeping people alive.

 Drug overdose death rates in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1990 and continue to rise in Colorado. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data show 9,672 Coloradans died from drug overdoses between 2000 and 2014. Opioids were the main factor in at least 3,213 of these deaths. While some of these deaths involve illegal drugs, many more involve prescription painkillers — drugs many of us have in our medicine cabinets.

In 2013, Gov. Hickenlooper’s office, state agencies, prescribers, universities, pharmacists and others developed the Colorado Plan to Reduce Prescription Drug Abuse. Since 2012, the Colorado Legislature has passed three new laws aimed at reducing the harm associated with overdose in Colorado.

  • The 911 Good Samaritan Law gives immunity to people who suffer from, and report, an emergency drug- or alcohol-related overdose. Without threat of prosecution, people who otherwise would be reluctant to report such an event can rest assured they won’t be prosecuted by the legal system. This is a lifesaver for many people.
  • Most overdoses are unintentional and witnessed. In most cases, lives could be saved by the timely administration of Naloxone, a prescription drug that reverses the effects of opioids. In Colorado, Naloxone now is available to third parties, including family members, friends, law enforcement officers and any person in a position to assist someone with an increased risk of overdose. Licensed prescribers, dispensers of Naloxone and anyone else who administers Naloxone in good faith to someone who they believe is experiencing a drug overdose are immune from criminal prosecution.
  • During the 2015 legislative session, Colorado passed a law providing standing orders for larger access to Naloxone around our state. As chief medical officer at the state public health department, I will issue standing orders for Naloxone to be dispensed by pharmacies and harm reduction organizations to expand statewide Naloxone access to those who need it most. Today, you can walk into six pharmacies across the state to get this lifesaving drug. We expect many more will participate in this opportunity to save lives.

Overdose Awareness Day and Colorado’s efforts send a strong message to current and former drug users: You are valued. To those who have ever loved a drug user, let us remember those who have died by educating our communities and helping prevent others from losing loved ones to overdose. We can do this together.

Dr. Larry Wolk is executive director and chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Opinions expressed in Health News Colorado represent the views of the individual authors.

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