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EDITORIAL: The Narcan debate is a legitimate one — and should continue

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The overdose-reversing drug Narcan saves lives. It’s a good thing. But it’s use on addicts is raising questions nationwide as to its effectiveness in combating an opioid epidemic that continues to spread.

Reporter Robert Mills explored the issue in Monday’s Sun, following a story from Butler County, Ohio, where the local sheriff and a councilor made national headlines by taking a stance against dispensing the drug. They argued that the use of Narcan on repeat addicts was putting the lives of deputies in danger, distracting from public safety, and depleting already strapped municipal budgets.

“(The use of Narcan) is totally out of control,” Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones told a cable TV network. “It’s bankrupting the heartland.”

A Butler County councilor proposed a “three strikes and you’re out” policy on the dispensing of Narcan.

While the actions and comments were controversial, they’ve become part of the national conversation. The epidemic is getting worse. Preliminary data compiled by The New York Times in June reveal that U.S. drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 59,000 — a 19 percent jump from 2015. The data suggest 2017 deaths will reach 65,000.

Without Narcan, it’s easy to surmise 100,000 deaths or more.

Massachusetts public safety officials in the Merrimack Valley and North Central Massachusetts said it would equate to a crime to not dispense Narcan to addicts. We wholeheartedly agree.

Yet addicts who repeatedly push the envelope with no intention of seeking remedy for their ills — one local man in The Sun’s story had been revived by Narcan on 13 occasions — do represent a drain on public resources.

The issue here, quite frankly, is how to give addicts a 1-2 recovery punch, combining Narcan with comprehensive treatment.

Gov. Charlie Baker proposed such a Draconian mandate late last year in the state’s major opiate response bill. Addicts revived by Narcan would have had to self-admit themselves for seven days to a substance-abuse treatment center. The hospital lobby and medical experts successfully fought the bill. First, the lack of reimbursable funding for treatment put providers on the spot; and second, experts argued that the treatment period wasn’t long enough to make a significant difference.

So the state is right back where it started. The challenge is to make Narcan’s use a stronger weapon in an addict’s recovery process. At present, we’re just treading water.