On Tuesday, Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes announced the implementation of Naloxone, a new weapon in the arsenal of the war on drugs.
The announcement comes after both national and statewide efforts to address the opioid issue have arisen. In August, Gov. Kay Ivey created the Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council. President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency in October.
Naloxone is a pure opioid antidote that combats the effects of an opioid overdose by reversing the depression of the central nervous and respiratory systems caused by an opioid overdose. The administration of Naloxone is by injection, and there is professional training required.
Hughes said in August that the problem in Lee County isn’t heroin; it’s abuse of prescription drugs.
In 2015, more than 700 Alabamians died due to drug overdoses. That same year, there were 5.5 million prescriptions of opioids in the state — with only 4.8 million residents in the state of Alabama.
“These drugs are getting to the street legally, but they are getting distributed illegally,” Hughes said. “Those 5.5 million prescriptions resulted in about 360 million doses — that is 988,000 doses per day in the state of Alabama. That is insane.”
The Center for Disease Control released a report in 2012 that lists Alabama as one of the states with the most amount of opioid prescriptions. There are anywhere from 96 to 143 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in the state, placing Alabama in the same category as surrounding states – Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Statewide, 600 kits, each containing two dosages, are being dispersed to law enforcement agencies in all 42 judicial circuits. Some areas, however, like the seven high-risk counties determined by the state: Jefferson, Shelby, Etowah, Tuscaloosa, Walker, Escambia and Cherokee, received the opportunity for extra kits.
Lee County also received three kits due to early action by the District Attorney’s Office.
The dosages of Naloxone come in kits, packages of two, with a price tag of $3,800 per kit — $1,900 per dose.
Hughes demonstrated the administration of the dose on Tuesday afternoon. The device speaks audibly to the user, providing step-by-step instructions and a countdown for the administration of the dosage.
The office spent more than $11,000 on the currently possessed dosages of Naloxone. The kits were distributed at the district attorney’s discretion to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Opelika Police Department.
They hope that the introduction of this drug will protect officers who are out in the community doing their jobs and provide them with peace of mind when they are on site at drug investigations.
“The community needs to know that their officers are being supported and that the dangers of the job have never once stopped a law enforcement officer from doing his or her job,” Hughes said.
There are only six Naloxone dosages in the county. Hughes said he was hopeful that the dosages would not actually be needed.
“One injection should do it, but depending on the level of exposure, the second dosage may be needed,” Hughes said when demonstrating the dosages use.
This means that one overdose could cost nearly $4,000 to reverse.
“It is a financial commitment for sure, but at the same time, what price can you put on the life of somebody who is putting their life on the line for us?” he said.
The devices are to be used at the officers’ discretion. If there is a life or death situation, Hughes said the officers may choose to use the dosage to aid an individual suffering from overdose; however, the primary purpose of the devices is their usage for officer protection.
“These officers are doing their sworn duty: putting their lives at risk," Hughes said. "That’s why we are happy to provide them with these kits, that if they do have that exposure … they can do it without fear. They have this backup.”
But what about those who suffer from addiction?
Hospital spokesperson John Atkinson of the East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika said that between January and June of 2017, the emergency room saw 106 patients with diagnoses related to opioid abuse or dependency.
Methadone is an opioid medication that reduces the effects and withdrawal symptoms of people addicted to heroin or other narcotic drugs. It is a legalized drug used in drug addiction detoxification programs. The state of Alabama has 20 methadone clinics in the counties of Mobile, Birmingham,
In January 2016, Hughes and his team blocked the implementation of a methadone clinic on Fox Run Parkway in Opelika.
Hughes said that the effort by the construction of clinic here would be unsuccessful, and it would cause more problems than solutions.
“We don’t need that here," Hughes said. "We’ve got a hard enough job as it is without you bringing a legalized system to put more of this mess on the street. They bill it as heroin replacement, opioid replacement, but really — it is addiction replacement.”
Hughes spoke of the blockage of the clinic as a victory for the office. One year later, from January to June 2017, the EAMC saw those 106 cases of addiction.
As far as these cases go, the only current plans in place are that of prosecution and punishment.
“As far as punishment goes, we prosecute them to the fullest extent we can, and the judge punishes them,” said Hughes.
He briefly mentioned the resource of drug court in his response but offered no further comment on rehabilitation. Hughes cited community awareness as the primary asset of the solution.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones took a bit of a different approach. He told The Plainsman that efforts are actually being made to educate and rehabilitate those who are in the system.
“Once a person ends up in our facility, we are very careful," Jones said. "We have people on our staff that are trained in mental health operations, and they are assigned to classify individuals coming into the jail to ensure that we are placing them in the proper residence areas. They also conduct an in-house substance abuse treatment program, and Lee County is one of the few jails in the state to run such an operation.”
Jones acknowledged that jails traditionally are not treatment centers, but they have recently been subjected to more responsibility in rehabilitation due to the current social and economic circumstance.
“We want to do anything we can to ensure that ... we work with people who have obvious substance abuse and substance addiction issues, and try to provide them with some type of treatment while they are in jail," Jones said.
Jones said that the S.T.O.P. program has had around a 50 percent success rate since its implementation 10 years ago.
“If we can help someone and prevent them from coming back, then why wouldn’t we want to do that?” Jones asked.
Jones, Opelika Police Chief John McEachern, Auburn Assistant Police Chief Will Matthews and Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association all joined Hughes in the announcement Tuesday.
“We are excited to be supporting this important safety initiative, and this is an opportunity to put more tools on the tool belts of our officers … to protect both ourselves and the citizens," Matthews said.
A press release from the District Attorney’s Office stated that they are making the drug available through the collaboration of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association, the Office of Prosecution Services, the Alabama Department of Public Health, pharmaceutical company Kaleo Pharma and a partnership between Air University and Harvard University.
The kits expire in June 2018, and there is no current plan for replacement.