Maine Governor Paul LePage just denied heroin addicts in the state access to over-the-counter naloxone, a drug that can save a person's life when they overdose.
Naloxone, usually used as an injection or a nasal spray, can quickly reverse the symptoms of a heroin overdose. It usually works within five minutes of being injected, and it has saved lives as the country has gone through a nationwide heroin epidemic in recent years.
The bill, which passed both houses of Maine's legislature, would have let pharmacists give the drug to anyone who has a heroin addiction or those who have a friend or family member with a heroin addiction. It was vetoed by LePage on Wednesday despite having the support of both local law enforcement and healthcare clinics, the Portland Press Herland reported.
The state is one of several in the grips of a heroin epidemic–last year, the newspaper reported, 272 people died of drug overdose deaths in Maine. That's 31% more than the year before, and up from 155 overdose deaths four years before, in 2011. The majority of those deaths were related to some combination of heroin, fentanyl or prescription pain killers.
Part of the problem has been that dealers are cutting the heroin with fentanyl, sometimes without a user's knowledge. Fentanyl is an opioid pain killer which is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin on its own, one of the reasons more people are overdosing.
Making Naloxone more accessible is supported by the Centers for Disease Control, especially in rural areas where people might not be as well-connected to emergency services. In fourteen states, Naloxone is already available over the counter at pharmacies. Several other states have introduced laws that make it easier for people to administer the drug, because it has been proven to save lives.
LePage vetoed the bill because he says he disagrees. “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose,” LePage wrote in his letter vetoing the bill. “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.”
On top of saving lives, the drug could also mean overall benefits to the public health care system if overdoses can be immediately treated with an over-the-counter medication instead of a visit to the emergency room. It's by no means a complete answer for communities facing this rise in addiction and death. But it could be some small measure of security as they grapple with how to get themselves or their loved ones into rehab and stop them from succumbing to the addiction as many others have.