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Maine Governor: Heroin Overdose Antidote 'Does Not Save Lives,' Only Causes More ODs

Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would allow Maine pharmacists to dispense naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, without a prescription.

by Nilo Tabrizy
Apr 21 2016, 8:50pm

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

"These are guys with the name Dee Money, Smoothie, Shifty — these types of guys — they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home."

So said the governor of Maine last January in a bizarre throwback to racially-charged drug rhetoric of years past in America. But Governor Paul LePage's controversial stance on drugs — in a state that has seen a dizzying rise in opioid-related deaths — isn't limited to questionable statements. It also extends to policy.

On Wednesday, LePage vetoed a bill that would allow Maine pharmacists to dispense naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, without a prescription. Explaining his veto, LePage wrote that "naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose."

The bill, known as LD 1547, drew bipartisan support and passed the state legislature unanimously. It also created room for police and fire departments to have a supply of naloxone, and provided immunity to health care professionals distributing naloxone when "acting in good faith and with reasonable care."

Related: Here's How Zero-Tolerance Drug Policies Have Damaged Public Health Worldwide

Maine lawmakers have struggled to deal with the rising rates of fatal opioid overdoses in the state. Last year, 272 people died from opioid overdoses — a 31 percent increase from 2014.

In January, LePage signed a $3.7 million bill to address the state's addiction issue. The legislation specified that $1.2 million would go toward creating 10 new positions within Maine's Drug Enforcement Agency, and funneled $2.5 million to addiction treatment. Critics pointed to the bill's prioritization of drug enforcement, and its failure to expand medication-assisted treatment by using drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, known by its brand name Suboxone, the gold standards for treating opioid addiction.

"You can't get people into treatment if they're dead," said Dan Bigg, co-founder and director of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, an organization that helps drug users and individuals with HIV/AIDS.

In 1996, Bigg was the first person to start distributing naloxone to people who had overdosed on opioids. He is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives, and received an award from the Drug Policy Alliance for his work increasing naloxone access.

'Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose.'

"What I've seen over 20 years is naloxone saves lives in a huge way," Bigg said. "I'll give you an example. We had an outbreak of fentanyl-laced heroin overdoses in 2005 in Chicago. In a three-day period, there were 90 ambulance calls, and 72 fatalities. Last fall we had a similar outbreak. We had nearly 80 ambulance calls in three-day period, and only one fatality. The difference is that we've immunized ourselves, in a sense, with naloxone."

When VICE News asked LePage to comment on the veto, his office sent a copy of the veto letter. "Creating a situation where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of naloxone in the other produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction," the governor wrote.

In a subsequent email, a spokesperson for the governor said, "No one in Augusta is working harder than Governor LePage to save lives," and pointed to legislation he signed earlier this year. Beyond devoting resources to law enforcement, those measures added addiction treatment beds to state correctional facilities and created a state monitoring system for painkiller prescriptions.

"Until the governor started speaking loudly and publicly about the drug crisis in Maine, which claims over 250 lives a year and results in almost 1,000 babies a year being born addicted to or affected by drugs, the Legislature was totally ignoring the problem," the statement said.

Related: Portugal's Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin

But while LePage advocates for cracking down on drug trafficking and adding oversight to doctors prescribing pain medication, advocates like Bigg see the governor's attitude toward naloxone as wholly at odds with dealing with drug addiction.

"Naloxone distribution is as enabling as seat belts are," Bigg said. "The issue is whether [Governor LePage] wants to leave his term as governor with a pile of bodies in his wake or not. He should do as much as he can with treatment, but last I checked, death kind of cancels most of someone's future."

Follow Nilo Tabrizy on Twitter: @ntabrizy

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