Earlier this year, Florida passed a law allowing naloxone to be sold over the counter at drugstores. At the time, it was heralded as an important step toward fighting the growing number of opioid deaths in the state.
Naloxone, better known by its most common brand name, Narcan, can temporarily reverse the effect of heroin and other opioids in the case of an overdose. The World Health Organization recommends family and friends of opioid users — including those who have a legitimate need for prescription painkillers — keep it on hand at all times.
Unless, of course, they can’t find it.
Calls to 32 pharmacies in Broward County all yielded the same answer: None had naloxone in stock. In many cases, the pharmacist had never heard of the drug. Only one pharmacy — CVS at 255 FL-7 in Margate — said it was available.
Some pharmacists said they could place a special order. According to James Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University’s Center of Applied Research on Substance Abuse and Health Disparities, that’s not good enough. “It’s dangerous if it’s not available and if people are discouraged from getting it,” he told New Times. “If you’re told to come back in six days, you may or may not come back in six days.”
Making naloxone widely available is especially crucial given that the number of opioid deaths in Broward County has risen dramatically. In 2015, 80 people died of heroin overdoses compared to 28 in the previous year. That’s staggering when you consider that back in 2011, the county only had three heroin deaths.
So why are pharmacies making it so hard to find naloxone? It’s hard to get an answer out of the major corporate chains; CVS, Publix, and Walmart didn’t respond to our requests for comment. (This story will be updated if they do.) A spokesman from Walgreens didn’t answer questions about how the chain decides whether or not to keep the drug in stock, but said “the store can order it and have it available usually by the next day.”
None of the pharmacists we spoke to indicated that they objected to carrying naloxone. But legally, pharmacists in Florida can refuse to dispense medication on moral grounds. If a store owner or individual pharmacist feels that providing naxolone would mean condoning illegal drug use, they are not required to give it to a customer.
The problem could be a lack of awareness about the importance of the drug, which leads to a lack of demand. Jinnie Santos, a pharmacist at Emerald Hills Pharmacy in Hollywood, said she’d never had a customer ask for naloxone. As a result, the store doesn’t currently have any plans to begin carrying it.
It’s also worth noting that while HB1241, the law allowing naloxone to be dispensed without a prescription, was passed back in March, it didn’t actually take effect until July 1, so it may take a little while for pharmacies to get up to speed. “Hopefully, it’s just a temporary startup problem,” Hall said.
While most paramedics now carry naloxone, there often isn’t time to wait for them to arrive. Hall says anyone who witnesses an overdose should immediately administer naloxone while simultaneously calling 911. “This is a drug that when people need it, they need it immediately,” he explained. “We are talking about life and death here.”
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