As a growing opioid epidemic claims hundreds of lives across Orange County, Supervisor Todd Spitzer says people who are addicted to heroin should get help to stop their addiction, not antidote kits that prevent them from dying during an overdose.
“They need to get help, and they shouldn’t rely on this reversal of an opioid to save their lives. They should be figuring out how not to use heroin. Not…how to use heroin, and then have somebody come rescue them,” Spitzer said during Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.
His comments came as supervisors considered whether to allow the distribution of more than 6,000 naloxone kits to drug treatment centers and people at high risk of overdosing from opioids.
Accidental drug overdoses are the leading cause of death in Orange County among people under the age of 35, according to data from the county and the CDC.
Most drug overdoses in Orange County involve opioids, with 228 people dying in 2015 across all ages. Such deaths have continued to escalate since then, according to the OC Register.
About 80 percent of overdose deaths are accidental, according to the county coroner’s office. And over half of opioid overdose deaths in the county are from prescription drugs.
Spitzer suggested instead of receiving the kits, which are recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin addicts should be told: “You need to get into drug treatment. You need to change your life. You need to get off the [Santa Ana] riverbed. You need to get a job. You need to get housing.”
Providing the antidote kits, he suggested, would create “an environment where, you know, you can continue to use heroin, you don’t need to change your behavior,” because if an addict overdoses, a friend can administer naloxone and save the addict’s life.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson strongly disagreed with Spitzer, saying he's wrong to think it's easy to stop using heroin.
“I just want to suggest to you that, when you get to opiate addiction…they’re addicted,” said Nelson, who said his uncle Mike was a heroin addict and died at a young age.
“They take the heroin because they get physically ill if they don’t take it, and that’s the same with all these other opioids – oxycodone…down to Vicodin,” he added.
“It’s a ridiculous choice to get started – dangerous, life threatening. But once you’re on it, the reason they keep going back, is physical dependency. It has nothing to do with the fact that naloxone is available. There is no addict that goes and takes heroin because naloxone happens to be in the room.”
“My understanding is," Nelson added, "most of these young people that are addicted to heroin right now are addicted because they started on legal prescription meds – which are out of control – took them, ended up…getting hooked, you can’t get prescriptions – the street value of Oxycodone’s like $40 a pill – and you can get black tar heroin for $10 or $15 a dose. And it becomes an addiction matched with a financial incentive.”
“It happens probably thousands, if not tens of thousands of times every day right here in Orange County.”
“[Naloxone] is not a drug antidote that convinces people to start taking heroin. I mean that just – that doesn’t happen,” he added. “We’ve got to provide parents that feel helpless, with a remedy. And that is what this is all about.”
Federal health officials recommend expanding access to naloxone in order to reduce opioid overdoses and save lives.
The antidote, which is also known by its brand name Narcan, essentially blocks the effects of overdoses and is not addictive, according to the CDC.
The county Health Care Agency recently received a state grant that would provide 6,218 doses of naloxone for the county to distribute.
Spitzer, who is running for county District Attorney, voted against accepting the grant. It needed three supervisors to be approved, and passed 3-1. Supervisor Lisa Bartlett was absent.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.