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A life-saving antidote

Maryland has a serious addiction problem. Last year there were 887 heroin overdose deaths in the state, a 76 percent increase over 2010. Many of those who died initially became addicted to painkillers such as Oxycontin and Percocet and only later turned to street drugs like heroin when they could no longer obtain prescription medications. Tragically, many of them also could have been saved had they been treated promptly with naloxone, a medication that quickly reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.

That's why we welcome news that the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will make naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, more widely available to addicts, their families and friends and first responders throughout the state. The department will no longer require people to get a doctor's prescription before they can purchase the drug at a pharmacy. Instead, anyone who may be in a position to assist an addict experiencing overdose symptoms can legally purchase the medication simply by showing that they have been trained in its use.

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In October, Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen issued a so-called "standing order" allowing anyone trained to use naloxone to purchase it at city pharmacies. Baltimore, which accounted for nearly half the state's overdose deaths last year, has trained thousands of people to administer the drug as part of a coordinated effort to prevent such tragedies and steer addicts into treatment and recovery. The Good Samaritan law passed by state lawmakers this year gives immunity to people who assist overdose victims, and it also allows physicians and other health providers to prescribe naloxone to anyone in a position to help overdose victims. The state health department's action in effect expands that blanket prescription to apply to every pharmacy and clinic in the state.

Naloxone already has saved hundreds of lives in Baltimore, and the city's experience could serve as a model for the rest of the state. Gov. Larry Hogan came into office on a pledge to reduce overdose deaths in the state by 20 percent by the end of this year, and this month a task force he appointed issued a series of recommendations that included both expanded access to naloxone and more treatment and recovery programs for addicts as well as a crackdown by law enforcement against drug dealers and gangs.

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The recommendations of the governor's panel are comparable to those issued by a Baltimore City task force earlier this year. In addition to training more people to administer naloxone and a public health campaign to alert people to the danger of overdose, the Baltimore panel urged around-the-clock treatment on demand for addicts, a beefed-up prescription drug monitoring program to flag suspicious sales and local overdose fatality review teams to investigate every overdose death. Mr. Hogan's advisers also targeted treatment and recovery services at state prison inmates, who research suggests are particularly vulnerable to relapse and overdose when they are released.

Both state and city officials recognize that preventing drug overdose deaths will require a comprehensive, multifaceted approach and that there's no magic bullet to address every aspect of the issue. This is a problem that has been years in the making, and it will take a sustained and coordinated effort by officials at every level of government to resolve it. Making naloxone more widely available statewide is an important first step, but it doesn't cure addiction and there's far more that still needs to be done to make it a more effective part of Maryland's overall strategy for reducing overdose deaths.

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