More than a year before the untimely death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a heroin overdose cast a bright, national spotlight on the vicious cycle of addiction, overdose and death, third-year law student Viola Woolums was fighting to break it with a new state law that increases access to naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose from heroin, oxycodone or other opioids.
The need for naloxone has increased as the number of drug-related deaths in Maryland rose six percent during the first seven months of 2012 as compared to the same time in 2011, according to the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The increase of deaths from heroin overdose was particularly sharp, jumping 41 percent during that same period, while deaths from prescription opioids, such as oxycodone, dropped 15 percent.
Woolums and her classmate, Ameet Sarpatwari ‘13, working under the direction of Ellen Weber, professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, joined a coalition of parents, nonprofit organizations, and physicians that convinced legislators to ease restrictions on naloxone; the Maryland General Assembly acted—unanimously.
“This was not a partisan issue, but a harm reduction issue,” said Woolums. “Having naloxone available to parents and other bystanders will save lives in Maryland.”
Previously in the state, naloxone was only available through a written prescription from a doctor to a person who actually used opioid-based drugs. Because of this limitation, police officers, caregivers and parents could not obtain naloxone or have it handy in an emergency; the way an EpiPen can be easily available to treat allergic reactions.
Under the new Overdose Response Program (SB 610/HB 890) passed during the 2013 Session, caregivers, family members, and others can participate in programs that will train them how to use naloxone safely. Physicians will then be able to prescribe the medication to them, so they can administer naloxone in an emergency to a family member or friend without medical supervision.
Expanding access to naloxone could not come at a more critical time,” says Professor Weber, who teaches the Drug Policy and Public Health Strategies Clinic, which provided the opportunity for students to advocate for legislation to expand access to naloxone. “Maryland, like other states, is experiencing an epidemic of heroin overdose deaths, and young men and women are among the hardest hit. With the passage of this legislation, County health departments around the State are now developing training programs and partnering with physicians and pharmacies to ensure that the medication is available to those in the best position to save a life. This is one very important piece of a comprehensive strategy to prevent and treat drug dependence.”
Woolums and Sarpatwari played a key role, participating in every aspect of the legislative process, from drafting the bill to meeting with supporters and scheduling testimony. Woolums also testified in the Maryland House of Delegates with a panel of health professionals and parents who had lost children to overdoses.
“My experience in the clinic really prepared me for working with different groups of people,” observed Woolums. “It taught me how to approach an issue from many points of view.”