San Diego police and emergency officials are using naloxone more than ever before local data shows.
The drug, also known by the brand name Narcan, counteracts the effects of heroin and other opioids.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 2002-2014, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths more than quadrupled in the United States. There were more than 10,000 deaths in 2014 alone.
Maria Alexander, moved to Southern California to go to college. On her 21st birthday, she says she decided to try heroin for the first time.
“I had no experience with it; I knew no one that did it and the downfall wasn’t immediate,” Alexander said. “It was fun for a minute, but then it took me down a dark path.”
Alexander says she used heroin on and off for the next 20 years.
“I have overdosed five times requiring the paramedics to administer naloxone,” she said.
She recalls the last incident.
“I was in a car with some people and they threw me out in the alley behind an apartment building.”
Collapsed on the floor, the heroin she injected and pills she swallowed were about to kill her. But her life was spared that day, because a paramedic injected her with naloxone.
“I just woke up to the police and the paramedics yelling and screaming, they were really upset,” Alexander said.
Data obtained by NBC 7 Investigates shows Alexander isn't alone.
In 2012, in the city of San Diego alone, paramedics administered naloxone on 353 people, according to data provided to NBC 7 Investigates from the city. Every year since, that number has climbed. Last year paramedics used it 1,340 times. So far in 2016, it’s been used 1,123 times.
This data only reflects what is reported to the city and county officials by local hospitals. Next year, reports are expected to come directly from paramedics.
From August 2014 to August 2015, a dozen people were administered naloxone multiple times. In some cases, five times or more in one year. The data shows two men were each saved by naloxone 11 times in that one year period.
“Clearly you would rather not have to reverse someone from an overdose just to go back and do it again,” said Jim Dunford, San Diego's EMS Medical Director.
An advocate for naloxone, he said it's been used in the City of San Diego for 25 to 30 years. Once only available as an injection, it can now be administered as a nasal spray.
Now, it's not just paramedics, first responders and law enforcement that carry it; so do everyday citizens.
Dr.Dunford said: “As much as possible, this is now being provided to families and significant others.”
This month, San Diego hosted the International Harm Reduction Conference. Part of the conference included training where mothers from around the world learned how to obtain and use naloxone.
Shawn Norton, a mother from La Mesa was at the conference. She runs the La Mesa chapter of (GRASP) Grief After a Substance Passing.
She told NBC 7 Investigates, “I didn't know about naloxone. At the time we couldn't carry it in our homes and I lived in fear every day.”
It's something Norton said she wish she would have had in 2005 when her daughter overdosed, again in 2009 when her mother overdosed and this past August, when her cousin overdosed on heroin.
“If you have asthma, you take an asthma inhaler,” she said. “If you have an allergy you carry an Epipen. People around you know how to do it. Naloxone should be the same way.”
While recovering addicts and their family members advocate for naloxone's use, there are concerns drug abusers are viewing it as a safety net.
Something Alexander says she disagrees with.
“I have wondered myself,” she said, “So I went around and asked everyone that I knew that had used heroin. ‘Did you use more, when you heard about naloxone? And everyone said, ‘what are you talking about? Like that's the farthest thing from our minds. Oh let’s use more because there’s naloxone.’”
During her years using heroin, Alexander says she lost custody of her two children. In 2002, she says she entered residential rehab and got clean for good. She also got her kids back.
She has been sober for nearly 15 years and is now the Executive Director for Center for Living and Learning in Los Angeles.
“Tell my kids I wasn't worth saving because they would beg to differ,” she said. “No life is not worth saving.”
In California, any doctor can write a prescription for Naloxone. A bill passed last year makes it possible for people to buy the antidote from some pharmacies. Customers who purchase it, in-store are required to receive a brief training on how to use it.
If you are interested in receiving naloxone and going to a training in San Diego. Call “A New PATH”: 629-670-1184 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org