A bill to get naloxone, a life-saving medication that reverses opioid overdoses, into the hands of people who need it received broad support Monday.
Law enforcement officials, emergency responders, public health advocates and others expressed their support and, at times, gave heart-wrenching testimony, as they urged Oregon lawmakers to pass a legislative package intended to slow the sharp rise in opioid overdose deaths.
The show of support was exhibited during the Oregon House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee’s first hearing on legislation aimed at making naloxone more widely available. The legislation also standardizes how overdoses are tracked across the state.
Heather Hurst told the committee that first-responders in Canby saved her 24-year-old son from an overdose using naloxone in December.
“Unfortunately, no one was there to save him a month later,” she said. “If we can do anything as community members to learn how to stop this poisonous scourge, this must be done.”
State Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Portland Democrat and critical care doctor, crafted much of the legislation in response to the proliferation of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that’s contributed to overdoses.
“It is impossible to ignore the profoundly tragic impact illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other opioids are having across Oregon,” Dexter told the committee. “The threat it poses to every member of our community is very real.”
In 2021, 745 Oregonians died from unintentional opioid overdoses, more than doubling from 2019, according to Oregon Health Authority numbers.
Dexter said Oregon and the rest of the country are still grappling with the overprescription of opioid painkillers that began in the 1990s and was aggressively led by the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma. She described how counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl can be purchased on Snapchat and how teeneagers have died from ingesting just one.
After sponsoring a series of bills, Dexter is now seeking to include her legislative proposals as an amendment to House Bill 2395, which directs the Oregon Health Authority to study drug use. Dexter’s legislation clears up legal ambiguity and administrative barriers around who can administer and dispense naloxone in the hopes of getting the life-saving medication in the hands of people who need it.
The legislation clarifies that trained school personnel can administer naloxone to students or others. Owners of buildings open to the public, such as libraries or bars, are also immune from legal liability for administering a naloxone kit kept in the building. Police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers would also be authorized to distribute naloxone kits to people at risk of overdosing or their families.
“I would be lying if I said I am not terrified about… where we’re at right now, and what’s coming as our drug supply starts to change even further,” Haven Wheelock, who oversees the drug users health service program at Outside In, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides health and social services to homeless youth, told the committee.
She said she has lost up to four or five people she works with in a week. She added, “This package of bills will help make people feel more confident to have these medications in their restaurants, in their fire trucks to distribute in their schools.”
Wheelock also applauded how the legislation decriminalizes the distribution of fentanyl testing strips so drug users can test substances to see if it contains the potentially lethal opioid.
“When we get called out to an overdose, it is taking more and more naloxone to reverse the overdose as we see the rise in fentanyl,” Tim Novotny, general manager of Bay Cities Ambulance and representative of the Oregon State Ambulance Association, told the committee. He said his association appreciated the liability protection offered by the legislation.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt also voiced their support for the legislation to the committee, which also heard devastating stories of how opioid overdose deaths ripple through communities and families.
The committee also heard House Bill 2833, which directs the Oregon Health Authority to collect data on the administration of naloxone and opioid overdoses. State Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, said she sponsored the bill after a steep rise in overdoses in her district.
Grants Pass Police Chief Warren Hensman told the committee that in 2020, the city had 37 overdoses, one death and 33 deployments of Narcan, the patented nasal spray form of naloxone. By 2022, the city recorded 96 overdoses, 11 deaths and 68 Narcan deployments, he said.
The bill, he said, would help law enforcement and community groups identify trends with opioid use locally and hopefully find solutions.
“We know law enforcement cannot arrest our way out of addiction,” he said.