The past decade has seen over a four-fold increase in deaths from opioid overdose in the United States. To address this growing epidemic, many localities initiated policies to expand access to naloxone (a drug that reverses the effects of opioids); however, little is known how naloxone access affects opioid use behaviours.

The present qualitative study used semi-structured, in-depth interviews with inpatients at a substance use treatment centre. All patients who met study inclusion criteria (in treatment for opioid use, between the ages of 18 and 40, able to speak and understand English, and had not previously completed an interview with the research team) were invited to participate. Interviews were conducted until thematic saturation was reached (N = 20) and covered the participant’s naloxone knowledge, access, and attitudes, as well as experience(s) with opioid use and opioid overdose, and their naloxone use in the context of opioid overdose. Thematic content analysis was used to analyze interview transcripts.

Five main themes were uncovered during analysis; first, awareness about naloxone, including, content knowledge and source information for naloxone. Naloxone awareness was very common among opioid users; however, depth of knowledge varied; some participants did not make any efforts to have naloxone available, and others felt that it was “just as important as a clean needle.” The second theme explored how naloxone access intersects with drug selling. The third theme explored naloxone availability while using, including attitudes about naloxone, occasions with no naloxone availability, when naloxone is “good to have,” and when naloxone is a priority for users. The fourth theme examined changes in opioid use behaviours associated with naloxone access. Primarily, participants discussed changing how much heroin they used in a given situation to achieve a bigger high. The final theme explored naloxone behaviours that alter overdose mortality risk, such as how users distinguish when to use naloxone, dis-incentives to naloxone use, and solo opioid use.

Results indicate that though naloxone awareness was high, there was great variation in the associated attitudes and practices. Participants generally described naloxone as an important resource, but not all were inclined to carry or use it appropriately. Future research needs to examine why different groups of opioid users access naloxone differently, particularly to identify those at risk for experimental opioid use while carrying naloxone.

Sarah Cercone Heavey, Yu-Ping Chang, Bonnie M. Vest, R. Lorraine Collins, William Wieczorek, Gregory G. Homish
International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 51, January 2018