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Advocates say a key to saving lives would be more widespread access to Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, which can quickly counteract the effects of heroin in an overdose.

A bill recently signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker aimed at addressing a frightening rise in heroin-related deaths prevents those who report another person’s overdose from being prosecuted for drug possession. However, the person suffering from the overdose may still face jail time when they come to.

Madison Police Officer Howard Payne, a department spokesman, says he believes most overdose cases result in criminal charges.

“Officers investigate that matter as thoroughly as they can and arrive at a decision as to whether a charge is appropriate,” he says. “At minimum it’s a possession-level (offense).”

He acknowledges that this fact may deter some people who are in trouble from calling 911.

“That's a concern of ours because we don't want people to perish and we want people to feel comfortable calling,” he says. “It’s a catch-22.”

Wisconsin is not the only state addressing a troubling rise in heroin overdoses.

The New York Times reports that the New York Police Department is launching a pilot program — financed by $50,000 in federal funds — to equip officers in Staten Island, one of the city’s five boroughs, with a nasal spray that can be used to revive people from overdoses.

The spray contains naloxone, better known by its brand name Narcan. Usually the drug is administered via injection, but the nose spray is much easier to use for those who aren’t medically trained.

The Times reports that police officers have used the nose spray to save three lives in the past few months.

The availability of naloxone has gained prominence in Wisconsin where, in a rare display of bipartisanship, both houses of the state Legislature unanimously voted recently to require municipalities to equip their ambulances with the drug in response to an increase in heroin-related deaths in recent years. Walker signed that bill and three other heroin-related bills earlier this month.

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The legislation also specified that all first responders, including police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel, are allowed to carry the drug, but only EMS units were required to do so.

Payne said there has not been any talk of equipping Madison cops with Narcan. Madison ambulances have been equipped with the drug for years and injection remains the only method used.

“Our police officers rely on the fire department to use Narcan in the same kinds of situations of trying to reverse an opioid overdose,” Payne says, noting the recent upswing in heroin overdoses in the city. “I've seen EMS personnel administer Narcan on a regular basis.”


Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove incorrect information about how naloxone is injected and to clarify which city of Madison employees are currently administering it.

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.