By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Libraries must be protected from lawsuits if their employees administer opioid overdose-reversing drugs, say proponents of legislation that would do so.
Naloxone — commonly known in nasal spray form as Narcan — is non-addictive and can completely reverse the effects of an overdose, said Larry Wagenknecht, the chief executive officer of the Michigan Pharmacists Association. The drug displaces the opioid from receptor sites on cells, meaning the opioid is still in the body but will no longer have an effect.
The bill package, sponsored by Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, would extend “Good Samaritan” legal protection to libraries when a staff member administers naloxone to someone they believe to be overdosing. Individual staff members are protected under the Good Samaritan laws, but not libraries as an institution.
The bills reflect a growing understanding of the broad community impact libraries can have, said Mark Bronson, the director of the Cheboygan Area Public Library.
“Libraries have become a safe place for people that are on the margins of society,” Bronson said. “It’s just a recognition that libraries are becoming more than just a place for books — we’re becoming integral to the culture and the social makeup of the community. We’re being open-minded about how we can help our communities and make them better places.”
Libraries in Grand Rapids, East Lansing, Muskegon and Kalamazoo have reported opioid overdoses in recent years, according to a statement from Sheppard’s office.
In larger cities like these — especially at main libraries or downtown branches — first responders can quickly reach someone who’s overdosing, said Gail Madziar, the executive director of the Michigan Library Association. In rural areas, such a swift response is much harder, making it even more necessary for alternative life-saving options.
Libraries are no more or less prone to being the sites of overdoses than any other public space, she said. Any increase in library overdoses simply reflects the rapidly worsening opioid crisis at large.
In 2017, there were 1,941 fatal opioid overdoses in Michigan, a 285 percent increase from five years prior. Sheppard represents a portion of Monroe County; 18 fatal overdoses have occurred in the county this year, according to the Monroe County Heroin Task Force.
Many libraries already stock naloxone, Madziar said. But without the Good Samaritan protections, they can be held liable if their employees administer it.
Why anyone would sue a library for taking action in an emergency is unclear, Madziar said. But some of her members have received legal advice that scares them away from keeping naloxone on hand.
“Say someone administered the drug and a person died. The library could be sued because of what they did or didn’t do,” Madziar said. “We would just like to see, for those libraries (that administer naloxone), that they don’t have to worry about a civil or criminal prosecution for doing something to help someone.”
The St. Ignace Public Library doesn’t have a library-wide stock of naloxone. Instead, library director Alycia McKowen said she has a personal kit which she would administer in the event of an overdose.
“We have not had any issues thus far, but it’s always prudent to have such things available in the off chance it does happen,” she said.
McKowen said she obtained the naloxone under a state law allowing pharmacists to dispense the drug without the recipient identifying whom it would be used on.
Even without Good Samaritan laws protecting her library, the possibility of legal repercussions wouldn’t impact her decision to administer the drug, she said.
“We feel it would be more beneficial to administer it than to not,” McKowen said. “It’s always good to be proactive to make sure our spaces can be safe and if need be, we can revive somebody.”
In Cheboygan, nobody has overdosed in the library to date, Bronson said. But as the opioid crisis grows in severity, his staff has begun to discuss whether to stock naloxone on-site.
Emergencies in Cheboygan “do get a pretty quick response,” he said, but the library’s discussions about overdose responses have taken the concerns of Madziar and others in the library field into account.
“That’s been part of our discussion — is (the community’s) response quick enough, do we need to intervene,” Bronson said. “But we haven’t seen that pressure here. We’ve had no experience with overdoses in our building.”
The legislation passed unanimously in the House in less than a week. It now awaits Senate action.
Federal regulations still classify naloxone as a prescription drug, Wagenknecht said. But with a likely expansion of legal protections in the works and the existing law allowing prescriptions to be written for anyone, Michigan has gone about as far as a state can in making the “almost unbelievable” drug easily accessible.
“The drug is safe — if you’re not having an overdose, it’s not going to do anything to you,” Wagenknecht said. “It literally saves lives.”