State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Thursday that his office was launching a program to get life-saving drugs that can halt opioid overdoses into the hands of law-enforcement officers across New York.

With overdose deaths from the abuse of powerful prescription drugs increasing, including in New York City, the attorney general said the $5 million program aims to train and equip every state and local police officer with a naloxone kit that includes two syringes of the drug, atomizers to make a nasal spray, sterile gloves and instructions.

Advocates and legislators across the country have been pushing to make naloxone more widely available to police officers, health workers and community members. Here’s what you need to know.

1. What is naloxone and why does it matter?

Naloxone is a nontoxic prescription medicine that works as an opiate antagonist —meaning it inhibits the effects of opiates that can lead to death caused by overdose. Naloxone can be injected or used as a nasal spray and is found under different brand names including Narcan.

Recent studies have supported the use of naloxone to stop overdose from opioid-based painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, as well as heroin. Naloxone has no known side-effects and is not known to be addictive. It has been used in emergency rooms for decades and studies have praised its cost-effectiveness. 

Both law enforcement officials and health and community advocates support using naloxone to battle what many are calling an “urgent public health crisis” in the increase of deaths due to opioid overdoses. In March 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder began to encourage law enforcement officers to get training and to carry naloxone. 

2. How big of a problem is heroin and prescription painkiller abuse in NYC?

The city’s Health Department issued a report in May 2013 that showed a 65 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths between 2005 and 2011. Staten Island had the biggest opioid overdose problem, with the borough registering a 261 percent increase in related deaths between 2005 and 2011.

Staten Island’s North Shore was selected for a pilot program funded by the city to equip police officers with naloxone. Launch in the fall of 2013, 180 officers were trained. The New York Times reported that three people had been saved from overdoses.

3. How does the attorney general’s program address the problem?

The program (called COP, or Community Overdose Prevention) announced on Thursday would fund training for and equip police officers across the state with naloxone kits. The program’s funding is coming from joint federal-state asset forfeiture. Police officers in some districts have already been using naloxone — particularly in Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island — but the program aims to make its use statewide. However, law enforcement agencies will need to opt into the program. The attorney general’s office plans to send a letter out encouraging participation by the end of this week.

4. What else can be done?

Matt Curtis, policy director of the activist group VOCAL-NY, said Thursday that the attorney general’s office should be commended for its new program. But he said additional funding needs to be directed toward community-based programs that work directly with users. “There’s really no substitute for having people in the community equipped with naloxone themselves, and the skills to respond to an overdose themselves,” he said.

For this reason, he said his group advocates for making sure that drug users themselves are trained in how to respond to the symptoms of overdose. “We of course want them to call 911” if they witness an overdose, he said, but “when seconds count, there’s no reason why the person who is witnessing it shouldn’t be able to respond.”

His group is also advocating for the passage of a state law that it argues would expand access to naloxone by making it easier for healthcare organizations and pharmacies o distribute the medicine. He described it as a way of making it legal for prescribers to “deputize” lay people to provide the prescription-only medication.  The city's Health Department has also said it supports the legislation.

The Senate passed its version of the bill in March; the Assembly is expected to act this month.

5. Does any other state allow similar practices?

There is precedent for so-called "standing order" naloxone prescribing — both North Carolina and California passed similar laws in 2013. Massachusetts has allowed it for several years as well, and one study credits the practice there with significantly reducing overdose deaths.