Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill Tuesday that supporters say will reduce the number of fatal heroin overdoses in Pennsylvania in part by making an antidote more available to police and the public.
The legislation also offers immunity from criminal prosecution to those who help overdose victims. The law will take effect in 60 days.
“The bill I am signing today will save lives and ensure those who help someone in need aren’t punished for doing so,” the Republican governor said at the signing ceremony at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown.
A legislative study found deadly drug overdoses skyrocketed in the state between 1990 and 2011. Experts say the increase is due in large part to the abuse of legal painkillers called opioids, whose users switch to heroin when their prescriptions run out or become too expensive.
Rural overdose deaths increased from about one per 100,000 residents to 13 per 100,000, according to the report by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. Urban fatalities rose from about three to 16 per 100,000 residents, the study found.
A drug called naloxone, commonly referred to by the brand name Narcan, reverses the effects of heroin and opioids like oxycodone. Although Pennsylvania permits paramedics and doctors to use it, police were not able to legally administer the antidote until now.
The new law also allows physicians to prescribe naloxone to friends and relatives of addicts. That’s particularly important because the first responder to an overdose is often a parent, said Deborah Beck, who heads the Drug and Alcohol Services Providers Organization of Pennsylvania.
“It’s a lifesaving drug,” Beck said.
Administered as a nasal spray or injection, naloxone works by blocking receptors in the brain that opiates latch onto. Police in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts, have carried the nasal spray since 2010 and said in July 2013 that they used naloxone 179 times, reversing 170 overdoses – a 95 percent success rate.
Beck said critics worried the bill would encourage risk-taking by drug abusers, but she dismissed the idea by noting addicts who overdose can’t self-administer Narcan.
The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, passed the Pennsylvania House and Senate unanimously. At least 17 other states have similar laws.
“Police officers need every life-saving tool available so they can continue to protect and serve the community,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan said in an earlier statement pledging support for the bill.
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