Narcan will save more lives if extended directly to Berkeley community members

CITY ISSUES: When faced with the opioid crisis, Berkeley must consider holistic response

Illustration of a police officer with narcan in front of Bart station
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

One of the fastest-growing problems in the United States is opioid addiction, and Berkeley is not exempt. Among the 14 cities in Alameda County, Berkeley has the second-highest rate of opioid overdose hospitalization, and opioid mortality rates in the city are higher than the overall average for Alameda County.

This opioid crisis demands a holistic and multifaceted response from city of Berkeley officials. And while the city and other public entities have taken steps to address cases of overdose, the city of Berkeley must also work to address the root issue of excessive substance use.

The increased use by law enforcement of the opioid antidote naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is one such step toward a solution for the issue of overdoses. At the end of May, BART police officers began using Narcan to counter the effects of opioids on people who are actively overdosing.

The antidote is also used by the Berkeley Police Department. In 2018, BPD began training its officers to use Narcan in cases of accidental exposure of officers to opioids and instances of overdose among community members. This deployment of Narcan has the potential to save countless lives, as it stops opioid overdoses promptly and effectively.

But training law enforcement to use Narcan is not enough. The antidote should also be given to the individuals who are arguably more likely to witness an overdose — community members and social workers who come into contact with those at risk, and those who use drugs themselves. This distribution could save lives in situations in which law enforcement is not present or alerted. Berkeley’s neighboring city San Francisco took this approach when its Department of Public Health began passing out Narcan to community members. San Francisco now has one of the lowest rates of fatal overdose in the United States — Berkeley needs to follow suit.

And while Narcan is proving to be incredibly important for harm reduction in the case of overdoses, it can only help individuals who are actively overdosing. The antidote does little to prevent future overdoses or help individuals seeking long-term treatment for substance use disorders.

Individuals who survive an opioid overdose continue to be at high risk for fatality. According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, these individuals die at approximately 24 times the rate of the general population in the year after a nonfatal overdose.

There must be city-led care for substance use disorders that factors in the many social and economic causes and offers long-term solutions before the harmful stage of an acute overdose. And while looking for ways to increase preventive care, the city of Berkeley needs to catch up to San Francisco and involve community members more in its harm reduction efforts.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.