Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Momentum is building to make it easier to obtain a drug that blocks the effects of opioid overdoses.

D.C. lawmakers voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would allow physicians and pharmacists to prescribe opioid antagonists like naloxone to those at risk of overdosing on opioids like heroin and prescription drugs, and to others in a position to administer the antidote. The bill would also protect medical professionals from legal liability when dispensing naloxone and permit community-based organizations to do so as well, provided that their employees and volunteers receive training from the Department of Health.

The legislation now heads to the full D.C. Council, which is set to pass it by the end of the year.

A pilot program currently running under DOH’s auspices has gotten intranasal Narcan—a brand of naloxone—into users’ hands. Community organizations participating in the pilot have reported dozens of opioid-overdose reversals since it launched in April thanks to the Narcan distributed through the program.

In D.C., nearly 115 people died of opioid overdoses last year, and almost 50 died in the first quarter of 2016, based on preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. More than 28,000 people died of such overdoses across the U.S. in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“With this legislation it is my hope that we can save lives by increasing access to this safe and effective medication,” Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Health and Human Services and introduced the bill in February, said yesterday. “This will have a major impact.”

Public health advocates praised the committee’s action, with the Drug Policy Alliance calling it “a significant step forward.” Andrew Bell, a manager for nonprofit HIPS, which is participating in DOH’s pilot program, said the legislation would “remove unnecessary barriers” that now exist.

One of those barriers is the fact that naloxone is obtained in the District like other prescription drugs to date, and many opioid users choose not to come forward to doctors or their friends. Another is that emergency responders—who carry Narcan—may not reach an overdose patient on time, and that the pilot currently applies to a handful of groups and intranasal naloxone only.