BOSTON (AP) - Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency in Massachusetts Thursday in response to the state's growing epidemic of heroin overdoses and opioid addiction.
Patrick's emergency order will allow first responders to carry the overdose drug naloxone - more commonly known by the brand name Narcan - and also make the drug more easily available by prescription to friends and family members of people battling addiction.
Patrick said that he's also moving to immediately ban the prescription and dispensing of the painkiller Zohydro, the first single-ingredient hydrocodone drug approved for U.S. patients.
Patrick said he fears the pill, which comes in a crushable form which he said makes it easier to abuse, could add to an epidemic of opioid abuse blamed for about 140 deaths from suspected heroin overdoses in Massachusetts over the past few months.
He's also sent letters to Congress and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking that the drug be banned.
"We have right now an opioid epidemic," Patrick said at an afternoon news conference. "So we will treat it like the public health crisis that it is."
San Diego-based Zogenix, which makes Zohydro, criticized Patrick's move, saying it will add to patient suffering in Massachusetts.
"The simple fact is that any medication, including opioid pain relievers, presents a danger to the person misusing or abusing it," the company said, adding that it has taken steps to help safeguard against abuse.
Patrick also said he will use the emergency declaration to speed up the phase-in of a 2012 law creating a prescription monitoring program. The program - designed to safeguard against abuse or misuse of prescription drugs - was voluntary before the law.
To help slow the frightening rise in overdose deaths, Patrick's plan will make Narcan available to relatives and loved ones of those with addiction problems through a standing order prescription in pharmacies. The drug had previously been available to parents and relatives who first went through a DPH training program.
The governor said his administration will dedicate an additional $20 million for addiction and recovery services to the general public and through the Department of Correction.
DPH's Cheryl Bartlett blamed the spike in heroin and opioid-related overdoses on the fact that the drugs are cheap and highly potent.
She also said many younger users take the drugs alone and some who are coming out of jail or treatment programs don't realize the effect the drugs' potency will have on their bodies.
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey joined Patrick to call for an expansion of the state's drug court program, which helps get people into treatment or diversion programs. There are currently 19 drug courts and Carey said there should be five more.
"Drug courts work," she said. "We are bursting at the seams."
The increase in overdose deaths has also caught the attention of state lawmakers.
Senate President Therese Murray, testifying at a public hearing Tuesday of the newly-formed Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options, said the costs of drug addiction are high to families and the economy, and also pose a safety threat to communities.
"Addiction is a chronic disease and it should be treated as such," Murray said. "If this were a flu epidemic, there would be thousands of specialists knocking at our door."