Hennepin County sheriff's deputies are the first law enforcement officers in Minnesota to carry the drug that can temporarily counteract a potentially lethal heroin or prescription painkiller overdose.

A new state law allows first responders and law enforcement officers to administer the prescription drug Narcan, also known by its generic name Naloxone. The law also contains a provision providing immunity for those who call 911 in the event of an overdose.

Sheriff Rich Stanek said 24 patrol deputies have been trained to administer Narcan, which comes in a nasal spray form. It can counteract the effects of any opioid overdose, including heroin, hydrocodone and oxycodone. Kits with Narcan have been placed in squad cars.

The program was launched on Aug. 1 — the day the law went into effect. The Sheriff's Office provides primary law enforcement services for four of the county's 45 cities — Greenfield, Hanover, Medicine Lake and Rockford — as well as Hennepin County Home School, Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility, Fort Snelling, the 133rd Minnesota Air National Guard, 934th U.S. Air Force Air Wing, and U.S. Marine Corp/Naval Reserves. Sheriff's deputies, with a patrol headquarters in Brooklyn Park, also assist local police forces across the county.

Stanek said that in many cities, especially outer-ring suburbs and rural areas, police officers and sheriffs deputies are often the first to arrive at an emergency and should be able to administer the lifesaving drug.

'A great additional tool'

Hennepin EMS, part of Hennepin County Medical Center, trained and is supervising the deputies in the use of Narcan. While ambulance crews have carried and administered Narcan for decades, allowing law enforcement to do so could buy someone overdosing more time, said Robert Ball, spokesman for Hennepin EMS, which serves most of Minneapolis and 13 suburban communities.

"It's a great additional tool for law enforcement officers, especially in the outer-ring suburbs and rural areas of Hennepin County where the sheriff's deputies tend to patrol more. It gives them a tool they can use while they are waiting for the paramedics. … In suburban areas, the police do tend to be the first responders on all variety of medical calls."

Deadly year

Last year, heroin killed 56 people in Hennepin County. It was the deadliest year on record, but 2014 could even eclipse that, Stanek said. During the first six months of this year, 29 people died from heroin in the county.

The rise in prescription drug abuse in recent years has helped fuel a heroin epidemic. Many who become addicted to prescription painkillers switch to heroin because it is less expensive. Many of those who overdose are teens and young adults, said Stanek.

"Each time with heroin, it's a new experience, you don't know how your body will react," Stanek said. "The stuff is unforgiving."

Stanek said he often listens to dispatch in his office and in the car. He hears calls about possible overdoses too often.

"There are a lot of sad stories. I am in the job of saving lives. It's the right thing to do," Stanek said.

Training and 300 doses of Narcan cost about $12,000. Stanek said other agencies are surprised at the low cost and are inquiring about training their officers, too.

"I took that out of drug forfeiture-and-seizure money," he said. "That money came from the bad guys who are peddling that poison out on the street."

The Anoka County Sheriff's Office is studying the issue.

"We are talking with our EMS providers to determine whether there is any need for us to consider it at this time," Cmdr. Paul Sommer said in an e-mail.

In Minneapolis, adding Narcan to squad cars isn't on the front burner right now.

"We are not primary responders on medical situations," said Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder. "The Fire Department and ambulances are dispatched well before we are. In an urban setting, we are not the first on the scene for these calls. Its makes far more sense for the Fire Department and the ambulances to do it."

Narcan interacts with the opioid receptors in the brain to prevent a fatal overdose, Stanek said.

"It just staves it off for a period of time so you can get other medical treatment," he said.

Stanek said deputies have been receptive. As part of their training, they met Bill Rummler, who championed the law at the Legislature. The measure was nicknamed "Steve's Law," after his son Steve Rummler, who died of a heroin overdose in 2011 following an addiction to prescription painkillers.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, also experienced a family tragedy involving heroin.

Eaton's daughter, Ariel Eaton-Willson, died in 2007 of a heroin overdose in a Burger King parking lot at age 23.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804