Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With drug overdoses on the rise and fentanyl leading the way, the United Way of Missoula County has partnered with a number of providers to place four Naloxone vending machines around the city in hopes of stemming future deaths.

The United Way, members of the City-County Health Department and the Missoula Drug Safety Coalition on Tuesday met with Missoula County officials as a courtesy before the vending machines are placed at four locations in early April.

The machines will offer free packages of Naloxone, each containing two 4 milligram doses, along with fentanyl testing strips and cards with information and resources. The machines were paid for by a donor and the Naloxone is provided by the state.

“We all know that drugs are devastating our community, our state and our country,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of the United Way of Missoula County. “We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem. Until we as a society provide more resources on prevention, treatment and support for people in recovery, drug cases are going to continue to choke our hospitals, our court system and our jails.”

According to recent data provided by the health department, overdoses from all drugs is on the rise. But overdose from fentanyl is leading the trend, up 71% in 2022. That year, fentanyl overdoses killed 24 people in Missoula County.

“We're seeing an increase in drug overdoses. It's not just happening somewhere else. It's happening here,” said Leah Fitch-Brody, the substance use prevention coordinator with Missoula Public Health. “We've seen a gradual increase in all drug overdoses in our county. But fentanyl overdoses have risen sharply. Sometimes you might have a really potent batch come into our community.”

Fentanyl-related overdoses are rising across the state, prompting the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to provide Naloxone for free. Approved by the FDA, the drug can reverse an opioid overdose by blocking certain brain receptors. It may also restore breathing.

A patient generally responds to Naloxone within three minutes, but it's effects may be temporary and 911 should be called during the process, health officials said.

“If that person does not respond in that time, you can give another dose,” said Fitch-Brody. “It can wear off anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. That's why it's important for 911 to come because they may go back into an overdose.”

Free to use and free from prosecution

To address the increase in overdoses, the Legislature in 2017 adopted HB333, or the Help Save Lives Overdose Act. The bill helps address opioid-related overdoses by providing access to Naloxone, or Narcan.

The state also adopted the Good Samaritan Law, which protects those who report an overdose from legal action, even if they were participating in the use of the drug.

“It basically says if someone is experiencing an overdose and calls 911, they won't get in trouble for using drugs or having paraphernalia,” said Fitch-Brody. “It protects both the person who is experiencing the overdose and the person who is calling.”

Shannon Sproull with the United Way and a member of the Missoula Drug Safety Coalition, said the vending machines are provided by the Independent Emergency Room Physician Trust.

With the opportunity at hand, they researched where most overdoses were occurring in Missoula and identified a number of hot spots including downtown, near the shelters, and areas along Russell and Reserve streets.

Mountain Line offered to place one dispenser outside the downtown transfer station.

“It became very clear that having 24-7 access was really critical,” said Sproull. “When people need it, it's important. And it's important to provide it at low barrier.”

The Missoula Food Bank will also have a dispenser, as will the Johnson Street Shelter and Hope Rescue Mission. The machines at the shelter and the food bank will be located indoors.

“It's important to get it distributed so people are carrying it when something happens,” said Sproull.