The SafeRx project aims to distribute Narcan to six local bars, three in North County and three in South County. The organization has successfully partnered with one establishment thus far, the Slough Brewing Collective in Watsonville, and hopes to collaborate with several more in the new year.
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Narcan could soon be available at bars in downtown Santa Cruz and Watsonville — an initiative that’s part of an ongoing public health agenda to end fatal fentanyl-related overdoses across the county.
A pilot project by SafeRx — a local substance-use safety coalition under the Health Improvement Partnership of Santa Cruz County — aims to distribute Narcan to six local bars, three in North County and three in South County. The organization has successfully partnered with one bar thus far, the Slough Brewing Collective in Watsonville, and hopes to collaborate with several more in the new year.
“It’s a really scary time,” said Rita Hewitt, program manager at SafeRx. “The young 20s to 30s is where we’re seeing a significant amount of fatalities. And a lot of them are from one-off partying.”
Data provided by Santa Cruz County’s deputy health officer Dr. David Ghilarducci showed there had been 607 suspected overdoses this year as of November, up more than 25% from the same time period last year.
Statewide in 2021, fentanyl accounted for one-fifth of the deaths among youth aged 15 to 24; overall deaths in that age group have increased sixfold from three years earlier. Among those aged 20-24, the opioid death rate has increased sevenfold since 2018.
Fentanyl is an extremely powerful opioid: 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. It can be cheaply manufactured in large quantities and spliced into other drugs — like other opioids, cocaine, ecstasy, even cannabis. As much as 90% of street drugs are contaminated with fentanyl, Hewitt says. Consumption of just a few grains can be fatal.
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Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, a fast-acting, life-saving reversal for opioid overdose. It works to boot out or block opioids, like fentanyl, from binding to opioid receptors in the brain.
Narcan is administered through a nasal spray to one nostril. Sometimes more than one dose of Narcan is necessary to revive someone, in which case sprays should be alternated between nostrils. There are no harmful side effects of Narcan, even if Narcan is mistakenly given to someone who is not experiencing an overdose. Administer Narcan first, then call 911, say public health officials.
Getting Narcan into bars is a proactive measure to support public safety. The team behind the SafeRx project — Hewitt, as well as senior program manager Ali Hayes — are providing both training and supplies to partnering bars, including discreet Narcan packets available for patrons to take. In the new year, the SafeRx team hopes to recruit five more establishments to the project.
At the Slough Brewing Collective, signage provided by SafeRx is on display both at the bar and in bathrooms letting customers know that Narcan is available for them to take. “We want to make sure that people know it’s available,” explained Erix Celis, a brewery co-owner. “We wanted to be nice and open about it so people feel comfortable.”
For interested patrons, staff keep a stash of free Narcan in discreet black baggies behind the bar. Of the decision to partner with SafeRx to provide this service, Celis says that they and friend Marisa Marquez, who helped organize the effort, wanted to have Narcan available ahead of the holiday season for safety reasons: “We know a lot of people are going to party and several people [may] use substances, and we just wanted people to have access to this life-saving tool.”
SafeRx’s project has faced some bumps, with some bar owners being difficult to reach as well as a statewide Narcan shortage. At a Nov. 2 town hall organized by the Health Services Agency of Santa Cruz County to discuss the ongoing response to the fentanyl crisis, Hewitt described bar owners as “somewhat receptive” to having Narcan on hand: “It’s taking a little time for the bar owners to kind of understand why we’re there and what we’re asking them to do.”
Despite this, the rise in fentanyl-related deaths has underscored to many that “Narcan needs to be everywhere and anywhere, including in bars,” Hayes said.
In Santa Cruz, some bars have taken it upon themselves to have Narcan available to staff in case of an emergency, including Motiv, a downtown dance club.“We want to be safe just in case something were to happen,” said Henri Geneste, the general manager. “We don’t want to be unprepared and have to wait for a call.”
J.J. McCabe, manager of MeloMelo Kava Bar, said the nonalcoholic bar also has Narcan stocked. “We’ve not actually had anyone overdose in the time I’ve been here” McCabe said, “but I’ve certainly worked other places downtown where that’s happened.”
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The general manager of the Redroom, Gannon Akin, said they would be open to having Narcan on hand as well. Several employees at the Redroom, including Akin, recently lost a friend to an opioid-related overdose — an experience that was devastating and shocking to the community there.
SafeRx’s initiative made having Narcan on hand for both staff and patrons at the Slough Brewing Collective easy, says Celis. Plus, Celis noted, the community has been receptive: “Everybody that’s come into the bar, both older people and younger people, have been like, ‘Whoa, this is so cool.’”
Although bars and nightlife venues don’t want to promote drug use, there is a growing consensus that protecting the well-being of patrons is crucial. “While we want to discourage hard drug use on the premises and will ask anyone who is doing hard drugs to leave,” MeloMelo’s McCabe said, “obviously, people’s safety and staying alive is more important.” This sentiment was seconded by Geneste of Motiv: “I think if you’re a nightlife venue you should definitely have Narcan on hand, and have the staff trained to” administer it.
For those concerned about having Narcan in bars, Hewitt compared Narcan to a seatbelt: “We know getting in our car is dangerous. I hate wearing my seatbelt, but I do it anyways, because I’m reducing the risk of harm if a car accident were to happen.”
Narcan is another type of safety tool, Hewitt added: “This is just a newer one that we’re not as familiar with, which is why it’s scary.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Marisa Marquez as a co-owner of Slough Brewing Collective.