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Is Narcan distribution helping or hurting homeless opioid addicts in Greater Cleveland?

With fentanyl overdose deaths on the rise, a local homeless advocacy group is trying to save lives by handing out Narcan, but is it working?

CLEVELAND — Over the past 10 years, Fentanyl overdose deaths have been on the rise in Ohio, but they would be much higher without Narcan.

"It helps, it really helps," Ryan, a homeless heroin addict living on the streets of Cleveland, said. "We don't plan to die, but it happens."

3News recently rode along with advocacy group Homeless Hookup as they handed out the life-saving drug. We watched as Director Dean Roff distributed Narcan to Cleveland's homeless and addicted from his mobile distribution center.

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"That's the life-saving tool that we have on board," Roff told us. "We're bringing back people's daughters, sons, moms, dads."

Ryan says he has used Narcan more than 100 times on friends, and he's had it used 49 times on himself.

"Everybody should have it in their home," he said. "Even if they don't have people who use heroin in their home, they should have it."

Narcan — or Naloxone — is a fast-acting medication that treats respiratory failure.

"You're looking at somebody who's, like, dead. They're blue, their lips are blue, they're pale — like three shades of white — they're grayish-blue," Ryan explained when asked what it's like to bring a friend back from the brink of death. "It's scary, [but] put the Narcan up their nose, rub their sternum really hard, most of the time they come right back."

Narcan has been widely distributed in the U.S. since 2014. According to the CDC, opioid-involved overdose deaths rose from just over 20,000 in 2010 to more than 68,000 in 2020.

Fentanyl is now responsible for nearly 80% of Ohio's overdose deaths, and the state is No. 1 in fentanyl seizures. Roughly 80% of heroin in the state is laced with the drug.

"Of all of our overdose deaths, the majority are related to fentanyl," Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson told 3News in a recent interview. "That's about 500 deaths a year."

So, is Narcan helping, or encouraging drug use? Critics say easy access to Narcan makes addicts less cautious, because it can instantly save lives. But Roff — who hands out hundreds of these packs a month — says Narcan changes lives.

"I have a family member who wouldn't be here today if they didn't have it," Roff noted. "They used it on her more than once. She needed more than once, and you know where she is today? She's married with a family and a nice house, sober for years."

A survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found no correlation between Narcan access and more risky or increased drug use. Gilson has issued a public health alert after just the first half of July saw more than 30 overdose deaths in the county.

   

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