Naloxone is a life-saving drug that, when administered to someone who is overdosing on opioids, can quite literally bring them back to life. Because of that, states have begun to allow or require police departments, first responders, and even family members and addicts themselves to carry it; in 2015, the first year it was readily accessible in Delaware, there were 82 documented cases of overdoses being reversed because of the drug.
But if there’s one thing that drives the opinion pages of our top newspapers, it’s that there’s two sides to every story. In that spirit, Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle bravely asked yesterday: is saving someone’s life when they’re overdosing really a good thing?
In this latest installment of her groundbreaking Sometimes People Just Die of Preventable Causes and We Shouldn’t Fix That series, McArdle cites a new study from the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin which says that, in areas where access to naloxone has increased, so have “opioid-related emergency room visits” and “opioid-related theft, with no reduction in opioid-related mortality.” (Not for nothing, a paper released last year says that naloxone access laws are “associated with a 9 to 11% reduction in opioid-related deaths.”)
McArdle calls this the “Peltzman effect,” after a University of Chicago economist who predicted in the 1970s that seatbelt regulations would make people drive more recklessly. “Drug users, one would think,” McArdle writes, “would be highly likely to recalibrate their risk-taking so that the risk of death remains constant, while the frequency and potency of drug use increases.”
McArdle calls this a “moral hazard” and says that the “coldly logical response” to that moral hazard would be to stop giving people naloxone and letting them die when they overdose. Sure enough, the researchers think that’s a bad idea, as does Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who tells McArdle flatly that while naloxone may “enhance risk taking...we must use it to save people in the immediate term.” McArdle eventually comes to the same conclusion, writing that the government should be “using a combination of sticks and carrots to help addicts get clean,” and that we shouldn’t be “depriving addicts of a second chance at life.” You don’t say!
For some strange reason, people were mad about this piece:
Naloxone is just one component of the strategy needed to fight the opioid epidemic and drug addiction in general. That approach should also include substance abuse treatment which is funded by the government if someone doesn’t have the means (or, better, a single-payer healthcare system which includes substance abuse treatment), stronger regulations on how drug companies market their products, and a whole host of other ideas that McArdle, a libertarian, would likely refuse to consider as a reasonable response to a crisis that is killing tens of thousands of people every year.
So instead, we get this: McArdle doing her best Peter Singer impression and publicly weighing the pros and cons of letting people who are overdosing on opioids die, and — like all good opinion hires at legacy papers — becoming bewildered when some people found her take vapid, cruel, and stupid as hell.