Denise Lavoie

WEST BRIDGEWATER, MASS.: Steve Wohlen lay on his front lawn, blue, unconscious and barely breathing, overdosing on heroin.

His mother ran outside, frantically assembling a pen-like canister. Her heart pounding, she dropped to her knees and used the device to deliver two squirts up her son’s nostrils.

Within minutes, his eyes opened, color returned to his face, and he sat up — brought back from a potentially lethal overdose by a drug commonly known by its old brand name, Narcan.

The drug, widely sold under its generic name, naloxone, counteracts the effects of heroin, OxyContin and other powerful painkillers and has been routinely used by ambulance crews and emergency rooms in the United States for decades. But in the past few years, public health officials across the nation have been distributing it free to addicts and their loved ones, as well as to some police and firefighters.

Such giveaways may have saved more than 10,000 lives since the first program was started in 1996 in Chicago, according to a survey by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national group that works to reduce the consequences of drug use.

Opponents say making the antidote so easily available is an accommodation that could make addicts less likely to seek treatment. The objections are not unlike those raised decades ago when addicts were first issued clean needles to curb the spread of AIDS. But Wohlen and his mother see things differently.

“I just didn’t want to be that mother standing next to that casket,” Linda Wohlen said.

Supporters of the distribution programs say getting naloxone into drug users’ homes saves lives that might otherwise be lost waiting for an ambulance.

“The question has always been: How can we get people treated before they die? If an overdose of the drug is taken at home, you won’t have enough time to get that patient to the emergency room before respiratory depression leads to death,” said Dr. Russell Portenoy, chairman of pain medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

The problem has become more urgent: Heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. nearly doubled over the last decade, from 1,725 in 1999 to 3,278 in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the same period, deadly overdoses from opiate-like drugs, including painkillers, have nearly quadrupled, from 4,030 to 15,597.

Naloxone works by blocking certain drug receptors in the brain. It has no effect on alcohol or cocaine overdoses but can be used against such painkillers as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin.

Normally available only by prescription, it is issued to people like Linda Wohlen through 50 programs in more than 188 locations around the country, including Baltimore, New York and San Francisco, according to the survey, published in February by the CDC. Thousands of people have been trained to use injectable and nasal spray forms of the drug.

Most of the U.S. programs are run by state or local health departments and addiction support groups.