The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is poised to become one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country to equip its patrol deputies with naloxone, a drug that can stop an opioid overdose.
The agency is expected to hand out naloxone nasal spray kits to 600 deputies this week, with an eye toward getting the drug to more than 3,000 of its street cops by the end of the year, according to Commander Judy Gerhardt.
It was Gerhardt who spearheaded the department’s initiative after the growing opioid epidemic touched her personally.
"Six months ago, my 23-year-old nephew passed away from an opioid overdose," Gerhardt told KPCC. "I’ve watched firsthand the devastation."
Her nephew, Maxwell Baker, died Dec. 28 at his Boston area home. Much of the epidemic has been concentrated in New England states, but health and law enforcement officials fear the problem may soon be just as bad in Southern California.
(In April, NPR interviewed Baker’s father and Gerhardt’s brother – a physician – about how to address the nation’s opioid problem.)
Coincidentally, Gerhardt’s daughter already was working on the issue. Unbeknownst to Gerhardt, Sheriff Jim McDonnell had asked her daughter, who works as a civilian in his office, to research naloxone.
"Life works in mysterious ways," Gerhardt said.
When Gerhardt told McDonnell about her nephew’s death and desire to prevent more, the sheriff gave her the green light to work on a plan to get naloxone into the hands of deputies.
"That’s when I realized we really had a chance to make a difference," she said.
Naloxone is a medication that reverses the respiratory depression resulting from an opiate overdose caused by drugs like heroin, oxycodone and methadone, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. After a simple training, naloxone can be safely administered by laypeople, including police officers and family members. The drug is delivered by injection or with a nasal spray.
Until 2015, it was available only by prescription from a medical provider or from a handful of distribution programs. Now, many pharmacies carry it as an over-the-counter drug thanks to a law passed by the California legislature and signed by Governor Brown.
Under the sheriff’s plan, deputies will carry Narcan in their patrol cars. Narcan is the brand name for a device that delivers naloxone through a nasal spray. The first two-dose kits will go to deputies in places where OD's are more likely – community colleges, county parks, East L.A. and Santa Clarita, where Henry Mayo Hospital reported 8 opioid OD’s in one recent 24-hour-period, Gerhardt said.
The kits cost about $75 apiece. The money is coming from a state grant distributed through the county health department.
No longer will deputies have to wait for paramedics as they watch someone struggle for life in the midst of an opioid overdose.
"I don’t want my nephew’s death to be in vain," said Gerhardt.
"Maybe those people who are struggling with the disease of addiction can live another day to at least have the choice to seek treatment and get help" thanks to a deputy who carries naloxone, she said.
Other law enforcement agencies in California already carry naloxone, including the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Its deputies started carrying the spray back in 2014.
The LAPD is expected to start handing out naloxone to about 100 officers who deal directly with homeless people on Skid Row and elsewhere in a smaller pilot program later this summer.