As opioid deaths climb rapidly in Alaska, the medication Narcan has been touted as a life-saving tool to combat overdoses. While many police departments across the state use Narcan, the Anchorage Police Department — the state’s largest law enforcement agency — does not.
Sandy Snodgrass wants that to change.
Snodgrass became an advocate for Narcan after her 22-year-old son Bruce died of fentanyl poisoning in Anchorage last October. She said she’s shocked that Anchorage police aren’t required to carry the overdose reversing drug. She spent four hours Tuesday handing out Narcan kits to people in front of the police department’s downtown headquarters, as part of a rally she planned to demand the department change its policy.
“Since I learned that APD does not carry Narcan, I’ve been rolling up on APD officers any chance I can get and asking them if they’d like a Narcan kit,” Snodgrass said. “And they all want Narcan kits. I’ve yet to speak to an officer that does not.”
Snodgrass said she gave 25 Narcan kits to officers as they walked in and out of the building on Tuesday.
“One of whom commented, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘We’re here to ask APD why they’re not carrying Narcan kits,'” Snodgrass said. “She said, ‘That’s a good question.’”
Snodgrass’ call for police to start carrying Narcan comes as Alaska opioid-related deaths skyrocket, with recent numbers from the state showing a 70% increase from 2020 to 2021. Roughly three in every four opioid overdose deaths in the state were related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“For the average person, two milligrams of fentanyl will kill you,” said Michael Troster, executive director of Alaska’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas unit. The organization is part of a federal program that coordinates with local, state and federal agencies to reduce drug trafficking.
Troster said Narcan is a major tool for fighting fentanyl overdoses. Narcan is the brand name for the reversal drug naloxone.
“It’s an opiate antagonist,” Troster said. “So unless you have opiates in your system, the way it was described to me, it would be like shooting water mist up your nose.”
He said a majority of law enforcement agencies across the country carry and administer Narcan.
“Alaska is pretty much the same as the rest of the country,” he said. “Most of them have it, but there are places everywhere that don’t.”
Alaska State Troopers use it, as does the Wasilla Police Department. Recently, Village Public Safety Officers in Southeast were trained to use it, too.
Anchorage police officials declined several interview requests earlier this week about the department’s Narcan policy.
In an email, an Anchorage police spokesperson said that while the police department doesn’t use Narcan, the fire department — which houses the city’s medics and Mobile Crisis Team — does.
“The most important component of saving a life is establishing airflow which is accomplished through CPR,” wrote APD spokesperson Renee Oistad. “We live in an area where both APD and AFD response times are quick. Should APD arrive on scene first, administering CPR is the proper response until AFD arrives to assess the situation.”
But change may be coming to the department.
At a meeting on Wednesday, amid increasing calls that police carry Narcan, Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said the department will reconsider its policy, reported the Anchorage Daily News. He said he planned to coordinate with a medical advisor and the city’s legal department, but cited hurdles of training, cost and safety concerns.
“Everyone’s coming out of the woodwork to give free Narcan right now. Once that’s over, Narcan is like, $37.50 a dose, and we need to come up with a funding source,” Kerle said at the public safety meeting. “It’s going to be expensive, and the majority of that’s going to get thrown away because we’re not going to use it.”
Recently, a nonprofit called Project HOPE sent hundreds of kits to the police department, only for them to be returned, which is how Snodgrass got them for her Tuesday rally.
“So the interesting thing about the Narcan that I brought today,” Snodgrass said. “They’re the Narcan kits — 100 of the 600 Narcan kits — that were returned from APD. I have them today.”
Outside of Anchorage police headquarters, roughly 20 people joined Snodgrass in her protest, waving signs with messages like, “Reverse an overdose, save a life” and “Why won’t APD carry Narcan?”
One of the demonstrators was Anthony Brotzge, a former day supervisor at the now-closed Sullivan arena mass homeless shelter. He said he had to administer Narcan before at work. He also has used Narcan in his personal life, when his wife Rebecca had an overdose.
“My wife, back before we got clean, if it hadn’t been for Narcan, we would’ve lost her,” he said. “But we had it, and she’s still here because of it.”
While Anchorage police say their response times are quick, Snodgrass said sometimes they aren’t quick enough.
“I know, last week, of an incident that occurred on Lake Otis and Tudor,” Snodgrass said. “A man had gone unconscious, unresponsive behind the wheel of his car. APD again did CPR on the man. Fire department arrived 10 minutes later with Narcan. The man passed.”
Troster, with Alaska’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas unit, said Narcan would ideally be available everywhere, similar to the prevalence of automatic external defibrillators.
“Until we wrap our hands around the scale of the problem, the treatment of the victims, Narcan’s just got to be so available that you don’t have to sit and wait until the people with it show up,” Troster said.
As for Snodgrass, she said she’s going to continue advocating for Narcan use, so other people don’t meet the same fate as her son Bruce.
“I know that Bruce would not want anyone else to die the way that he did, so my end goal is that APD provide lifesaving Narcan to people that may die,” said Snodgrass.
In addition to the advocacy in Anchorage, a bill meant to raise national awareness of the growing dangers of fentanyl titled Bruce’s Law has been brought forward by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.