Narcan’s vending machine helps fight opioid overdoses


A crisp white vending machine was recently affixed to the east brick wall of the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center. It does exactly what Em Gray had hoped for – just much faster than she expected.

“Some days it was nearly empty,” said Gray, who restocks it daily with life-saving drugs sealed in small brown packets. Even on the clearest days, she finds it half empty.

The machine dispenses single-use bottles of Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The Narcan is free for the taking. The vending machine simply keeps the naloxone medication out of the elements and stored at the correct temperature.

“I thought I had enough (Narcan supply) to last a few months,” said Gray, organizer of Project NICE, which stands for Narcan in an emergency. “But I pretty much got through that in a week.”

The need is undeniable in Austin and Travis County, where the alarming number of opioid overdoses months ago prompted authorities to declare a public health crisis. Deaths from fentanyl-containing drugs more than tripled between 2020 and 2021. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental deaths in Travis County, ahead of falls and car crashes.

Narcan could prevent many of these deaths. All Austin first responders carry the drug, but it is less accessible to members of the public. Pharmacies charge between $50 and $120 a pop, and the state-run free naloxone program, More Narcan Please, exhausted its federal funding in January, just five months after the start of the fiscal year.

The NICE project provides free doses of naloxone to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.  This form of naloxone is given as a nasal spray.

Still, organizations in Austin have continued their efforts to get free Narcan kits into the hands of people who can help if someone overdoses. Austin Community Health paramedics distribute between 25 and 50 kits a month, primarily while providing follow-up care to people who have suffered an overdose. Organizations like the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, which operates a mobile clinic, distribute the drugs as part of their outreach efforts.

Gray wanted to go further and implement free vending machines that make Narcan available at any time. The response from customers served at Sunrise, who got Project NICE’s first machine just over a week ago, has been one of gratitude and relief.

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Narcan “saves lives. I’ve seen him save various lives,” Brooke Breshears told me moments after seeing the NICE machine last Thursday. She said someone recently overdosed at the motel she was staying at, and front desk staff said they wanted to find some Narcan to keep on hand, so they could try to help residents. before the arrival of paramedics.

“It’s not readily available,” she said, “and it has to be.”

A creative collaboration

A number of cities have Narcan vending machines, but Gray’s NICE project established the first in Austin, thanks to a $2,500 grant from Austin Mutual Aid. She bought two old vending machines — the white wall unit through Facebook Marketplace, and a bigger one “like in a hospital waiting room” on Craigslist — and fixed them.

“One of them was not in English,” Gray said. Additionally, she had to figure out how to get the machines to dispense items without anyone paying anything, which involved retooling them using the Arduino programming language, which she had to learn.

She turned to ATX Hackerspace, an online collaboration of creators, and got a lot of help from CJ Picklesimer, who reworked the innards of the machines, and Sammy Pizzo, who ironed out the final computer coding issues. She found volunteers to help move the machines. The largest now sits outside the Sahara Lounge in East Austin.

The first Narcan dispenser in Austin was installed at the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center by The NICE Project, which stands for Narcan in an Emergency.  Medication for opioid overdoses is provided free of charge;  the machine ensures that the Narcan is stored at the correct temperature.

“I collaborated with a lot of people on this,” Gray said.

Various organizations and nonprofits, including the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative, provided the supply of Narcan. And Gray is confident she can achieve more, now that word is spreading and people can see how well the Sunrise machine has been received.

“I think (the NICE project) will grow,” she told me. “I also don’t want to act like it’s anything but a band-aid solution.”

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Invest in need

The real solutions Gray would like to see are efforts to ensure a safe supply of drugs, so people know exactly what they’re getting, and an end to the war on drugs, which has criminalized addiction and diverted resources from the treatment.

She’s not exactly holding her breath.

Governor Greg Abbott gave a speech on Sunday decrying the fact that “deadly drugs like fentanyl cross President Biden’s open borders”. Fighting drug trafficking was one of Abbott’s justifications for Operation Lone Star, the state’s $4 billion effort to police the border.

Funding for overdose treatment is another story. Months after the state’s More Narcan Please program ran out of money — due to increased demand and other factors that drove up costs — Texas directed an additional $632,832 to the program in July. The start of the new fiscal year on September 1 brings a new budget of nearly $5.6 million to More Narcan Please. However, since Abbott takes credit for the increased investment, every penny comes from the federal government.

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However, those on the front lines of the opioid crisis aren’t thinking about politics. They are determined to save lives. Lucas Hill, director of the Texas Opioid Training Initiative, told me clearly, “We need naloxone everywhere. We need easy and free access.

Dr. John Weems, who specializes in addiction medicine at CommUnityCare Health Centers, said he hears stories every week from people who have saved other people’s lives with Narcan. “It’s a Lazarus drug,” he said, alluding to its ability to bring someone back to the brink of death.

And now, for more and more people who need it, this miracle can be found for free in a vending machine.

Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. His column, ATX in Context, contains his opinions. Share yours via email at [email protected] or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find his previous work at statesman.com/news/columns.

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