In American schoolbags, an antidote against overdoses

Arlington (United States) (AFP) – Every morning before leaving his house to go to his high school, Jackson Danzing, 17, makes sure to have in his bag his books, his homework, his lunch… and an antidote to resuscitate a victim of overdose.

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Narcan is increasingly finding its way into the daily lives of adolescents in the United States, a country ravaged by an opioid crisis, including fentanyl, a drug up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

“Everyone has a friend or acquaintance who has dabbled with drugs. Imagine a scenario where you find one of your friends potentially overdosing and you don’t know what to do,” says Jackson, who set up training with her friend Marin Peale on the use of Narcan for 350 of their high school friends.

Here, in Arlington, near the capital Washington, where Jackson goes to school, the use of this nasal spray is not a fictional scenario: the police intervened for seven overdoses last year in public schools. One student even died.

Among adolescents, overdose deaths jumped 94% from 2019 to 2020, according to the CDC, which attributes this phenomenon in particular to the greater “availability of illegally produced synthetic fentanyl”.

Political support

However, growing access to naloxone, the generic name for Narcan, can also be controversial: some parents, Arlington students report, believe that this molecule trivializes, or even justifies, the use of hard drugs.

Across the country, local authorities have adopted different policies regarding opioids.

A nasal spray containing Naloxone, a drug that quickly reverses an opioid overdose, in a student’s backpack in Arlington, September 8, 2023 in Virginia © OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP

In Portland, a progressive city in Oregon (west), the choice was made to reduce penalties for drug consumption, to the point where open-air markets for illicit products began to sprout, leading to an increase in overdoses…

States have taken the opposite path by toughening anti-drug laws. After three overdoses, two of which were fatal, among high school students earlier this year in Tennessee (south), the sole survivor was charged with the murder of his two classmates.

But in general, “I see, in political trends, support for naloxone (…) and I believe that this is a victory in terms of public health”, maintains Keith Humphreys, researcher at Stanford University.

In Arlington, as throughout Virginia, drug prohibition remains in effect.

And students who bring naloxone to high school must first have received training on its use and obtained parental approval, says Darrell Sampson, director of student services for the city’s public schools.

The opioid crisis in the United States
The opioid crisis in the United States © John SAEKI / AFP/Archives

“In schools, we’ve always had to deal with drugs. But none of these substances were so cheap to produce, so lethal even in small doses, and so addictive as opioids and fentanyl,” he says. to the AFP.

“Modest ambition”

For Keith Humphreys, increasing access to Narcan is only part of the solution to the severity of the crisis.

According to him, the authorities must devote more public funds to the mental health of young people to help them manage their emotions and build healthier relationships.

As for naloxone, it can be used in the event of an overdose but cannot help curb addiction problems.

Sprays containing Naloxone, a drug that quickly reverses an opioid overdose, in a student's backpack in Arlington, September 8, 2023 in Virginia
Sprays containing Naloxone, a drug that quickly reverses an opioid overdose, in a student’s backpack in Arlington, September 8, 2023 in Virginia © OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP

“It would be a mistake to think that by reducing the number of deaths from overdoses we would have made great progress. It is an extremely modest ambition,” he told AFP.

Jackson Danzig and Marin Peale started carrying naloxone around last year, before their school officially allowed them to do so to keep them out of trouble.

A year later, Narcan is part of their daily life. “No matter the classroom, there must be a box and for my part I always have some with me. That way I am always ready,” summarizes Marin.

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