BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - CVS stores in Louisiana will begin over the counter sales of an opioid overdose reversal drug beginning in early June, the company announced in a press release. The hope is to reduce the death rate, which has become a national epidemic.
"Certainly, I think this is a life saving measure that people can get this drug to potentially reverse opiate overdose; however, I think this is only one branch of the opioid epidemic," said East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. William "Beau" Clark. "What I mean by that is I think there are several things that need to take place to impact the opiate epidemic."
In 2012, Dr. Clark began examining the heroin problem in East Baton Rouge Parish after 5 deaths were attributed to heroin overdose. Last year saw 38 deaths, the highest number so far.
"Obviously we recognized it in 2012 and that number has climbed to what we would consider epidemic levels," Dr. Clark explained. "That causes scientists and physicians to ask 'what is the root cause here?'"
The Centers for Disease Control says from 2000 to 2014, nearly a half-million people died from drug overdoses. More than six out of 10 overdose deaths involve an opioid.
"There are 70 people dying a day from this problem, not intentional, not necessarily heroin addiction, but pain pills, prescription pain pills are a huge part of the problem," said Dr. Arwen Podesta, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist based in New Orleans, in an interview with WVUE Fox8 reporter Sabrina Wilson. "I found that was so interesting when I started in this field, that the gateway drug was not marijuana, the gateway drug was surgery, or it was a doctor's visit."
Over prescription of pain pills has been identified as a leading problem for opioid addiction. However, according to a recent report released by The New York Times, opioid prescriptions are declining in the U.S. for the first time in two decades.
Unfortunately, that hasn't translated to a reduction in the number of deaths.
"We need to treat the underlying addiction," noted Dr. Clark. "We need to look at the need for rehabilitation services."
With many fighting an addiction that can make a person experience painful and severe withdraw symptoms, the market for illegal drugs has increased. The Coroner's Office partnered with the District Attorney's Office and local law enforcement to seek increased penalties for those caught selling heroin that leads to a death.
"I believe that a heroin dealer is a violent offender. Their weapon may not be a gun or a knife, but it kills just the same," Clark said in a past report with WAFB. "When you sell somebody heroin and they die from it, it's just as violent as being shot or stabbed. So I would put them, heroin dealers, in a different category than other drug dealers."
On Feb. 12, 2016, an East Baton Rouge Parish jury unanimously found Jarret McCasland guilty of injecting his girlfriend with a fatal dose of heroin. He was sentenced to life in prison.
"The jury heard all of the evidence. He injected her, the private text messages, he dealt drugs and heroin prior to this case. He dealt heroin after this occasion. He didn't stop. He is not remorseful and his actions lead to her death," said District Attorney Hillar Moore at the conclusion of the case.
Several bills aimed to continue addressing the heroin issue are making their way through the legislature. House Bill 1007, sponsored by Rep. Helena Moreno, makes it possible for CVS to begin selling Nalaxone or Narcan over the counter.
"The best solution would be for there to be enough treatment opportunities for people who are suffering with this addiction, but at this point that's just not available. So we need to do whatever possible to keep people alive," Moreno said.
The bill passed through the House and Senate unanimously. It is currently on the Governor's desk awaiting a signature.