NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Dr. Mark Lasko is the executive director of Samaritan Recovery Community, a rehab center in East Nashville. “Our patients that we’re seeing at Samaritan were dealing with alcohol,” Dr. Lasko said. “Now, that population has shrunk demonstrably. The majority of patients that we see are dealing opiates.”
You’ve probably heard the term ‘opioid crisis’ at some point in your life. This year, the Tennessee legislature tried to take a step to fight it by enacting a law requiring doctors to prescribe naloxone alongside an opioid.
“Someone overdoses on an opiate and your breathing gets shallow and slow and eventually, that will cause death,” Lasko said. “Naloxone can stop that from happening, as long as it’s administered early and quickly.”
You might know naloxone by the company that sells it in a nasal spray—Narcan.
The new law narrowly passed in the Tennessee House when it was still a bill. It needed 50 votes—it got 56. Much of the debate over it was whether or not it enabled those doing drugs to do them more often.
“We’ve got folks that are having naxolone [sic] parties in my district and overdosing on drugs and then bringing themselves back, making a party of it,” Rep. Ken Griffey (R-Paris) said during the previous session. “Is this bill going to enable them to do that more effectively and easier?”
“I would say that we are indeed enabling people to live, and that should be our primary focus,” Lasko said. “You cannot help someone stop using drugs if they’re dead.”
In Tennessee, overdoses have become a significant problem over the last few years, with opioids being the biggest contributor. State data shows opioids contribute to over 70% of overdose deaths each year. From 2016 to 2020, overdose deaths nearly doubled in the state.
The CDC shows Tennessee has the 5th-highest fatal overdose rates, at about 46 per 100,000 people. Those numbers don’t even include non-fatal overdoses, where naloxone was likely key.
“There’s 25,000 non-fatal overdoses in that same period where likely naloxone played a role in keeping that person alive so they can get back home to their family,” Dr. Wesley Geminn said.
Geminn is the head pharmacist at the Tennessee Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. He stressed anyone can have an overdose, though state data shows men and Black people have had the largest increases in overdoses.
“Lack of access to health care resources, lack of ability to enter into treatment,” Geminn said.
Whatever the case may be, the problem continues. But doctors hope this law is the beginning of solving it.