WASHINGTON — White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske on Tuesday called for making naloxone, a drug that has been highly effective at reversing heroin overdoses, more widely available to emergency-care providers and other first responders.
Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also urged states and local communities to pass "good Samaritan" laws to provide immunity from criminal prosecution to individuals who call for emergency help during an overdose.
The comments come as focus on the growing number of heroin overdoses has sharpened after the death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died Feb. 2. He was found in his New York City apartment with packets of the drug and a needle in his arm.
Heroin was involved in 3,038 overdose deaths in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During a conference call Tuesday with reporters, Kerlikowske said that relying on law enforcement alone wouldn't solve the problem and that the Obama administration was focused on treating addiction and preventing overdoses.
"We are not going to arrest our way out of this drug problem," the former Seattle police chief said. He praised the president's Affordable Care Act for requiring insurance companies to cover substance abuse treatment in the same way they do other chronic diseases.
Expanding the availability of naloxone is part of the effort, he said.
"The expansion of naloxone across a variety of treatment mechanisms is really very helpful," Kerlikowske said, applauding Boston Mayor Marty Walsh's decision Tuesday to require that naloxone be carried by firefighters and police officers in addition to emergency medical technicians and paramedics.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books that increased access to the antidote. Some advocates are pushing to allow doctors to prescribe the substance not only to individuals with addictions but to their relatives as well.
"Co-prescribing to both the person who is going through the disease of addiction and to their relatives and significant others can be very helpful," Kerlikowske said.
Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, praised the drug's effectiveness at preventing deaths.
"One of the things we know about naloxone is that it has very few side effects, so that it can be safely administered in many, many settings and to many different individuals," he said.
Some have linked the growing heroin problem to a rise in prescription drug abuse. Many prescription drug addicts have turned to heroin as an alternative because the drug is cheaper and more accessible.
Four out of five new heroin users reported previously abusing pain relievers before turning to heroin, according to a 2013 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Overdose deaths associated with drugs such as morphine and oxycodone jumped to 16,651 in 2010, up 21% from 2006. Those drugs accounted for the vast majority of opioid-related overdoses.
Heroin use is still relatively uncommon, officials said. Of the nearly 20,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2010, heroin was involved in about 15%.