The Coulterville Police Department hopes to be the first law enforcement agency in the metro-east to train its officers to use Narcan, a drug that blocks the effects of opiates and potentially could save a person who otherwise might die from a heroin overdose.
"We have had a couple of heroin deaths here," Coulterville Police Chief Jason Schlesinger said of his town of 950 people, located about 35 miles southeast of Belleville. "And we have had two or three people who were able to be saved because of Narcan by EMT crews who are allowed to carry it.
"The ambulance people have had it for a while. But now the law allows anyone to get trained and carry it."
The drug is administered through a needle, Schlesinger said, or it can be given to a patient in the form of a nasal spray. Coulterville's four police officers will be trained to administer the drug Monday night in a program that is expected to last about two hours.
"It's a little bit controversial, yes," Schlesinger said. "But we're going to keep making arrests and fighting drugs. We carry equipment to save people who are having heart attacks or who had car accidents, so why wouldn't we carry this if we could?"
The training and the drug, which Schlesinger said has no serious risks or side effects, will be provided to the police department by Bethany Place, a Belleville foundation that fights the spread of HIV.
Bethany Place Executive Director Angela Barnes said Madison and St. Clair counties had 357 drug-related deaths between 2006 and 2010, a number she called "inconceivable."
Barnes said Bethany Place offered in September to train area officers to use Narcan but no one took the organization up on its offer. She said she was glad to hear from Schlesinger when he decided to get the training for his department.
"I applaud Chief Jason Schlesinger of Randolph County for reaching out to Bethany Place for our expertise and training," Barnes said in a written statement. "The chief is a trailblazer and I hope other police chiefs follow his leadership."
St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said it is up to local police departments to decide if they want their officers to carry Narcan. But he said he thinks it's a good idea.
"I strongly support it," Kelly said. "Heroin is destroying lives. We have to use every tool available, punishment and prevention, legal and medical, to save lives."
Schlesinger said Narcan isn't a dangerous drug and won't cause any liability concerns for his department.
"If someone was to give a person who wasn't on opiates a dose of Narcan, their body would just metabolize it," Schlesinger said. "It wouldn't have any dangerous effects and officers won't have to make any risky decisions. Otherwise we wouldn't be doing this."
But St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson disagreed. He said he thought Narcan was too much of a risk for his deputies to carry it.
"It's such a liability," Watson said. "We're not trained medical people. I just don't know that it's a good thing for policemen to do. If ambulance people want to use it, I think that's something that is more appropriate because they have the medical training."
Watson said he has to worry about the potential of lawsuits because they cost the county money whether or not they have merit.
"If they die, we get sued and people think it's our fault," Watson said. "Besides, police are getting used in so many different avenues for other things that we're getting away from being crime fighters, which is our primary job. Trying to get (deputies) to be trained EMTs is spreading them too thin."
Watson said he also thinks it is unnecessary for his deputies to carry Narcan because, in a more urban setting, he can get an ambulance to the scene of an overdose in second and its trained crew can administer the drug.
Schlesinger said that was a good point. He said in rural Coulterville his officers can usually be at the scene in two minutes. But it sometimes takes 16 minutes to get an ambulance there.
Schlesinger also said he is confident he's protected for potential lawsuits because state law shields law enforcement officers from being sued for providing aid.
According to MedStar Ambulance spokesman Jason Laut, the agency responded to 135 overdose reports in 2013 in which Narcan was administered, or one about every three days. He said the company doesn't keep track of how many patients died. But the statistics are remarkable when Narcan is used.
Quincy, Mass., police officers began carrying the nasal form of Narcan in October 2010, according to a USA Today report. They have administered the drug 221 times and it successfully reversed the opiate overdose in 211 of those cases, according to police statistics.
According to rxlist.com, a website that contains information about medicine, Narcan's most common side effects are flushing, dizziness, tiredness and weakness. But, like with any drug, allergic reactions are possible for some people.
Narcan works by switching off the body's reaction to opiates, which are depressants. Heroin can cause cardiac arrest or heart arrhythmia, which prevents enough blood from being pumped to the body, according to a report from Dr. Karen Drexler, an associate professor in Emory University's psychiatry and behavioral sciences department. It can also kill by blocking the body's respiratory drive. Basically, the brain forgets to tell the body to breathe.
Narcan removes the obstacles to proper brain function and allows the victim to resume normal breathing and cardiac activity.
Schlesinger added that the drug isn't only good for people who have overdosed on heroin. He said it works with all opiate-based drugs including prescription pain killers.
"It could save your grandma if she accidentally took too many pain pills," Schlesinger said.
The DuPage County Sheriff's Department trained its deputies in the use of Narcan in January and is believed to be the first police agency in Illinois to have done so.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 618-239-2626.