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Helping Save Opioid Addicts’ Lives at Every Pharmacy in New Jersey

Chain stores like CVS and Walgreens already sell Narcan over the counter. Smaller pharmacies may soon join them

heroin opioid

A growing number of chain pharmacies in New Jersey now sell a life-saving shot to opioid drug users without a doctor’s prescription, part of a national effort by major drugstore companies to help combat the rise in addiction-related deaths.

A proposal (S-295) to expand the availability of the naloxone injection, commonly known by the trade name Narcan, would also allow independent pharmacies of all sizes to sell the overdose-reversal drug to those in need. Sponsored by Senate Health Committee Chairman Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the measure passed the Senate Thursday with unanimous support.

Solid data is difficult to compile, but experts believe there are well over 100,000 heroin users in New Jersey and more than 5,000 that died in the past decade. According to the governor’s office, nearly 11,500 injections of Narcan have been administered in New Jersey to date.

CVS started to make the shots available through more than 330 stores in New Jersey last September, as part of its multipronged effort to reduce drug use and deadly overdoses. As of March, the company sells naloxone in 15 states -- including New York and Pennsylvania -- and plans to expand to 20 more this year, a company spokeswoman said. Generic versions of the drug cost $90 or less for a two-dose pack, she said.

Walgreens has also joined the movement. The company announced plans in February to offer the injection, which can return an overdosing heroin user to consciousness almost immediately, in 35 states, including New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The company has more than 140 Garden State locations.

These national chains have corporate physicians who are able to write a so-called standing order, or blanket prescription, to cover multiple patients across all locations. “But it has been a challenge for the independent pharmacies to do the same,” Vitale said. “This bill allows them to dispense (naloxone) without having to have a standing order from a doctor or (an advanced practice nurse).”

The measure also allows family members to purchase the drug to help save a spouse, child or other relative who overdoses on heroin or other opioids; Vitale said it is safe and fairly easy to administer, even for non-professionals. The bill requires the state Board of Pharmacy to establish a protocol that would apply to all drugstores in New Jersey. A companion version in the Assembly awaits an initial hearing.

The proposal pleased Frank Greenagel II, an addiction expert who teaches at Rutgers University and participated in the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. “By allowing people to get it without a prescription, you open the door for far more people to obtain it, and therefore, potentially save far more lives,” he said, although it will still be hard for those with limited resources to purchase the drug.

“Naloxone in itself won't fix the opioid epidemic, but it is an excellent beginning to getting people into treatment, developing more recovery support services and increasing awareness,” Greenagel added.

Gov. Chris Christie, who over the years has invested new resources in a wide range of programs to reduce addiction, has also by providing tens of thousands of overdose kits to at-risk individuals, police and emergency responders. Christie also signed laws that offer liability protection for medical providers, emergency responders, family members and others who try and help an overdose victim.

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