Jordan Knapp notices a bag of cocaine on a glass table at a Calgary house party.
Then she looks at a friend sitting on a couch nearby. He’s pale, silent. She touches him and notices how sweaty he is.
It’s an overdose, she realizes. After years of experience as a social worker, the signs are clear.
She runs to another room and grabs a naloxone kit, a small pouch with an antidote to reverse opioid overdoses.
With the help of two others, she gets her friend into a cold shower and jabs the needle into his bottom.
“He came back after one vial,” remembers Knapp, who had used naloxone kits before — but never on someone she knew.
“It was just very traumatic for me.… I think doing it on a friend was more traumatic than doing it on a stranger.”
Knapp, who’s 31, is far from the only young Albertan packing a naloxone kit these days to parties, bars and other social gatherings.
The number of free kits being distributed by the province through select pharmacies and community centres has jumped by 47 per cent year over year — to 65,149 in the first half of 2021 from 44,221 in the same period in 2020.
And young adults like Knapp and workers at pharmacies and community centres where they’re being distributed tell CBC News that people in their 20s and 30s are driving much of the demand.
It’s not surprising, given older teens and young adults are the fast-growing age group in Canada to need hospital care due to overdoses. And in Alberta, which seems poised to have a record number of overdoses this year, more than half the fatalities since January have been among people in their 20s and 30s.
‘I actually find that I give out kits more to my friends’
Knapp says she’s saved dozens of people using naloxone kits while working as a social worker at a harm reduction facility.
But she also says she’s used the kits in her personal life and administered naloxone to three people at parties or bars in the past two years.
“I actually find that I give out kits more to my friends and to people in the bar that are partying rather than people experiencing homelessness,” said Knapp, who also works part-time as a server at a downtown bar.
The Alberta government began providing the free kits in 2016 through select pharmacies and community centres, spurred by an explosion of overdoses and deaths tied to opioids, especially fentanyl.
Naloxone can fight off overdoses from street opioids like fentanyl and heroin as well as pharmaceutical opioids such as codeine, hydromorphone and methadone. But it can also be used for non-opioid drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, since opioids are so commonly mixed in.
“One time, I brought in a couple of naloxone kits to a bar I was working at and I was told like, ‘Oh, we don’t need these,’ like, we don’t have ‘people like that’ in here,” said Knapp, who now carries the kits everywhere.
“People who are engaging in any sort of partying, like using cocaine or anything kind of along those lines, are at extremely high risk for overdose.”
‘The game has changed’
Samantha Perry, a 26-year-old Calgarian who also packs a naloxone kit everywhere, agrees that people need to ditch outdated concepts of who could overdose.
“The game has changed: there is no stereotypical substance user,” said Perry, who works as a peer support worker.
“The drug supply is so tainted, you never know when you’re going to come across someone in need.”
Perry says a kit she gave a friend ended up saving someone’s life.
“It’s relieving to know that that person [he saved] has a higher likelihood of being OK,” she said
Perry says she was a fentanyl user herself eight years ago, when she was 17. Naloxone kits weren’t widely available back then.
“I had a couple of close calls on my own when I woke up having no memory of falling asleep. So that was really scary. There was nothing really you could do at the time,” said Perry, who got sober six years ago.
Since learning what naloxone kits can do, she carries one everywhere.
“I went to raves sober for a bit. I always had one in my backpack,” she said.
Spreading the word to everyone
Young people aged 15 to 24 are the fastest growing population requiring hospital care from opioid overdoses, according to the federal government.
Alberta Health doesn’t give an age breakdown for overdoses, but it does for drug deaths. There have been 937 opioid-related deaths from January to the end of August in 2021, with 53 per cent of them among people in their 20s and 30s.
Overall, it’s shaping up to be the deadliest year on record for opioid drug poisonings, according to Alberta Health’s substance use surveillance system. With four more months to tally, this year is already closing in on last year’s record total of 1,160.
Knapp tries to spread word of the dangers to almost anyone she can chat with, handing out the life-saving kits to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers.
“Watching my friends partying would always really stress me out, worrying that, you know, if I went home, potentially one of them could overdose,” she said.
“Best practice, I found, was leaving a naloxone kit in the house, leaving it open, teaching everybody how to use it, teaching everybody the signs of an overdose.”
Normalizing naloxone kits
A Calgary-based pharmacist says spreading that awareness about naloxone kits is crucial, since most drug overdose deaths are accidental.
Brian Jones, who works at a Shoppers Drug Mart in Evergreen Village in Calgary’s southwest, has noticed more young people coming in requesting a kit.
“They say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go to a party, I’m going to go out and I want to have a kit,'” he said.
Jones says his workplace hands out around five to eight kits a week these days — up from two a month a few years ago.
“These types of initiatives take time, take time for understanding, and it looks like our younger generation is better understanding, better accepting, and they want to be part of the solution by carrying these,” he said.
While there’s no exact record of how many times naloxone kits are used, Alberta Health does track when people return used kits and report they reversed overdoses. According to these self-reports, 6,447 overdoses were reversed by naloxone kits in the first eight months of this year.
The pharmacist says he offers a no-judgment zone when accepting the returned kits.
“Sometimes they’ll open up and say, ‘You know what, I had to use it, and I would never be without one again,” said Jones.
He would like to see carrying naloxone become common practice.
“For the longest time, we said, ‘Hey, learn CPR, learn first aid, maybe you’ll save a life,'” said Jones.
“Well, now — carry a naloxone kit, maybe you’ll save a life.”
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