Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


San Diego County now has overdose reversal drug in vending machines

Can a vending machine save lives? It can if it’s stocked with naloxone, the drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.

San Diego County has begun a rollout of these vending machines, with the first now installed at the McAlister Institute treatment and education center in West Chula Vista. It dispenses two nasal doses of naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan.

The machine is free to use and available to anyone. All you have to do is scan a barcode, fill out some basic information and watch a short video on how to use naloxone. After that, you can receive up to six doses per visit.


“It’s been up for about a week and over the last couple days we’ve seen a lot of use and just members of the public coming by to see it,” said Carlos Cuervo, program manager at the McAlister Institute. “Naloxone is an opioid antagonist or blocker so it goes to those receptors in the brain, blocking the opioid and allowing you to breathe.”

The naloxone vending machine in Chula Vista is one of 12 planned for the San Diego region, part of a county program to increase access to the life-saving medication. San Diego County officials report two San Diegans die every day because of opioid overdoses.

“Our efforts really are around saving lives and so the work that we do is about ensuring that people have an opportunity to access treatment and get better — they can't do that if they die of an overdose,” said Stephanie Lao, San Diego County’s harm reduction program coordinator.

The machines were supposed to be rolled out late last year, but officials pointed to supply issues with the manufacturer for the delay. Lao said they hope to have a dozen operating by June.

“This is really just about increasing access and for the foreseeable future we want to ensure that accessibility is available,” she said.


While Naloxone vending machines are new to San Diego, they’ve already been up and running in other metro areas. In the Tacoma, Washington area the Dave Purchase Project operates a needle exchange service and rolled out three of the vending machines in early February.

“There’s already been reports of reversals using Narcan that was made available through the machines,” said Paul LaKosky with the Dave Purchase Project.

The naloxone vending machines in Tacoma are located at a recovery center, a public library branch and a church. At least 400 naloxone doses have been distributed in the community through them, said LaKosky, who does not see a downside in expanding access.

“All it does is enable someone to get the education they need and provide them tools they need to save a life and keep breathing,” he said. “I think they’re a great tool, I don't think they’re a panacea. When used appropriately they can really expand access to populations that may not feel comfortable coming in for other services yet.”

Nasal (left) and injected (middle) doses of naloxone sit on a table inside of a recreational vehicle used by the San Diego Harm Reduction Coalition.
Charlotte Radulovich
Nasal (left) and injected (middle) doses of naloxone sit on a table inside of a recreational vehicle used by the San Diego Harm Reduction Coalition.

The vending machines are just one part of the overall effort to increase access to naloxone. Tara Stamos-Buesig runs the Harm Reduction Coalition of San Diego, which provides mobile services, including testing drugs for fentanyl and distributing nasal and injected doses of naloxone.

“We have seen an increased need for naloxone and harm reduction services across the U.S. and San Diego is no different,” Stamos-Buesig said.

The Harm Reduction Coalition works to meet people where they are — whether they’re on the streets, in their homes or even at large events like festivals and concerts.

“Overdose does not discriminate,” Stamos-Buesig said. “It doesn't matter how old you are, how much money you have, whether you’re housed or not, what race or ethnicity.”

She said to save lives it is important to make naloxone more accessible and free of charge.

“Each community may have different barriers and that’s why it’s important to go talk to communities and see what are the barriers for you — transportation or knowing where to get it,” Stamos-Buesig said.

While the National Institutes of Health deem it safe, experts stress that access to naloxone is not a substitute for medical treatment, or getting help for addiction.

“I want people to understand that we do have an opioid epidemic going on and this isn't part of the problem — it’s part of the solution,” Cuervo said. “Most of the public knows how to do the Heimlich maneuver — CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) — this is another life saving tool.”

If there is an opioid emergency people should call 9-1-1.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.