In the months after John Power’s son died of an opioid overdose, the customers at his pharmacy in Browns Mills began, as he describes it, to “open up.”

Power has dispensed prescriptions in this Burlington County town for more than 30 years, and knew that the opioid epidemic had touched his community like it has so many others. But after his son Chris died at age 23, customers he had known for years began to confess to him that they, too, had lost a family member or had a loved one in active addiction.

“I was shocked, in speaking to [community] members, how prevalent it is. And when my son passed, they were shocked. They were like, ‘I’ve got this problem too,’" he said, wiping away tears. “The loss of my son has had a positive effect in that it’s bringing people out who are willing to talk” about the epidemic.”

Chris Power’s death in 2016 galvanized his father to act: In 2017, he became the first pharmacist in New Jersey to dispense the overdose-reversal drug naloxone under the state health commissioner’s standing order that allows anyone to pick up a dose of the drug at a participating pharmacy without a prescription.

More than 500 pharmacies around the state have since signed up for the standing order, and on Tuesday, 175 handed out doses of naloxone free as part of a pilot program organized by the state Department of Human Services, which supplied 20,000 doses.

New Jersey Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal (left) comforts pharmacist John Power, who shared the story of his son's opioid overdose.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
New Jersey Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal (left) comforts pharmacist John Power, who shared the story of his son's opioid overdose.

Power’s pharmacy ran out of its 72 doses by 3 p.m.

Shereef Elnahal, the state health commissioner, praised Power for his advocacy on overdose prevention, and said the giveaway was aimed at decreasing any stigma around naloxone. He said handing out free doses could help more community members access the drug — its generic form is available for $20 to $40, but prices for brand-name versions can run as high as $200.

Naloxone "saves lives. This is really about empowering communities to reduce the stigma behind this. [Treating] addiction is not something separate from health care. It is health care,” said Elnahal, who visited Power’s pharmacy for a news conference Tuesday.

Pharmacists around the state said they had been seeing unexpected interest in the giveaway. By 11:30 a.m., more than a dozen people had come through Bell Pharmacy in Camden asking for a dose.

Jahee Thatch, 49, said he came to pick up a dose because he worried about a friend addicted to opioid painkillers. “Just to save a life — if something was to happen to him, I would try to save him,” he said. Thatch said he’d dealt with addiction himself — and now, six years sober, he wants to help others.

In Browns Mills, customers spoke of losing family members to overdoses, or of wanting to be prepared to help a friend in addiction. A group of librarians stopped in so they could stock the town library with naloxone. One woman said she had been afraid to pick up a dose, until Power convinced her she could use it to save a friend’s life.

In the two years since Power signed up for the standing order, NJ.com has reported, the overdose death toll in New Jersey has skyrocketed: from 2,221 in 2016 to 2,750 in 2017 to more than 3,100 in 2018. Half the deaths in 2017 were linked to opioids.

Still, at Bell’s Pharmacy, pharmacist Anthony Minniti said he had fielded complaints on the pharmacy’s Facebook page, from customers upset that other drugs weren’t also given away or who argued that the giveaway was enabling addiction. The pharmacist said it was a sign of the pervasive stigma that exists around the drug.

“That stigma of you’re facilitating bad behavior — you have to put that aside for a minute,” he said. “Sometimes people make one mistake, and they never get a chance to make a second. Wouldn’t it be a shame if they’re not given a second chance?”

For his part, Power believes that giveaways like Tuesday’s might have saved his son. Chris, a self-taught musician, had become addicted as a teenager and struggled in and out of rehab facilities; he overdosed in a Florida sober-living home that did not have naloxone on hand, Power said.

“There are many naysayers out there who are going to say, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars. I will never, ever believe that, because I would like to think that if these same programs were available when my son was alive, and for him to realize that [he was] loved by a lot more people than he realized, I think it might have made a difference in his life,” he said.

A photograph of Chris Power, the son that pharmacist John Power lost to the opioid epidemic three years ago, sits in the pharmacist’s office.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
A photograph of Chris Power, the son that pharmacist John Power lost to the opioid epidemic three years ago, sits in the pharmacist’s office.