Blog Post

California's New Life-Saving Harm Reduction Strategies Could Spread Nationally

Laura Thomas

You know the old saw, as California goes, so goes the rest of the country? Let’s hope that plays out in this case.

Recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two major harm reduction bills – pharmacy access to naloxone, and syringe access expansion - which could have reverberations nationwide. California is known for radical ideas that trickle out to the rest of the nation over time. I sincerely hope these forward-thinking ideas catch on across the country.

Pharmacy “behind the counter” access to naloxone is a game changer. Once the regulatory process is complete, anyone can walk into a participating pharmacy and acquire naloxone, along with a short training on how to use it. Naloxone reverses opiate overdoses and is a necessary part of our campaign to reduce accidental drug overdose deaths, which are now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.

Pharmacies are the most accessible health facility in many communities – there’s probably one not far from where you live. Once this bill is fully implemented, people in California will join residents of Washington, Vermont, New York, and Rhode Island in being able to get naloxone from a participating pharmacy.

Although naloxone has been around since the 1970’s and is a very safe drug, the FDA is not yet willing to approve it for over the counter (OTC) sales. They held a hearing on exactly that topic a couple of years ago, but little has moved since then.

We decided to borrow a strategy from our friends in the reproductive justice movement. When they were trying to get OTC access to “Plan B” or emergency contraception for women, they worked at the state level to get state after state to pass bills allowing pharmacists to dispense it. That was a part of their successful campaign to get the FDA to eventually approve it for direct OTC sales. It is also an effective way to increase access to naloxone for people who use drugs, their worried family members, or safety-minded friends.

The second bill will allow people to continue to be able to purchase sterile syringes without a prescription, just as people can do in most other states. Our biggest win with this bill was lifting the arbitrary cap on the number of syringes people can purchase, thereby lifting the cap on the number of syringes people are allowed to legally possess.

The Drug Policy Alliance was deeply involved in ensuring the passage of both pieces of legislation. But it certainly wasn’t easy.

It is so discouraging to see good bills get voted down, vetoed, or stalled out in an unfriendly committee. Harm reduction legislation often faces stigma and stereotype and outdated ideology. It takes a lot of work to get these bills through. We field researchers to carefully explain the science, moms to describe the pain of losing a child, and medical professionals to talk about how the programs will work.

Every overdose death, every hepatitis C death, every preventable drug-related death is a loss. Many of us have lost friends, lovers, family members, or colleagues to drug related deaths.

These two bills will permanently change the landscape for people who use drugs in California, giving them a few more tools to protect themselves, their families, and communities.

That’s an idea definitely worth spreading.

Laura Thomas is the California deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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Harm reduction