If you didn’t cringe while watching recent TV footage of Gov. Paul LePage speaking against the use of naloxone, which is used to counter the effects of opioid overdose, you should watch it again. Put yourself in the position of a parent with a son or daughter addicted to painkillers, and know your governor doesn’t want to let you administer a treatment that could save your child’s life if he or she were overdosing.
NBC recently featured LePage at a press conference in Augusta. When asked why the legal drug — which has been used for decades by medical personnel — should not be legally available to parents of those with the potential to overdose, he said, “Because it’s an escape. It’s an excuse to stay addicted. … Let’s deal with the treatment, the proper treatment, and not say, ‘Go overdose, and oh, by the way, if you do I’ll be there to save you.’”
Does providing a safety net actually cause people to abuse opioids more frequently or use larger, riskier dosages? After much study, the answer is no. The governor should be pleased to know he’s wrong.
Take one scientific review published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2009. It found that naloxone triggers the unpleasant symptoms people addicted to painkillers are trying to avoid — only the symptoms with naloxone are worse. People who use opioids such as OxyContin, morphine or heroin and have experienced the side effects of naloxone — which can include intense headaches, nausea and vomiting — consistently say naloxone does not increase their drug use. In fact, the reverse is true: The training programs that often accompany naloxone distribution tend to reduce users’ drug use and increase their desire to seek addiction treatment.
After approval on April 3 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, naloxone can be delivered by a hand-held auto-injector that is easily kept in a pocket or medicine cabinet. It can’t be abused; and those who aren’t using opioids feel no effects from accidental injection. As of Jan. 1, 16 other states and the District of Columbia had made it easier for lay people to administer the treatment. Naloxone is already available at Maine hospitals and in ambulances. Sometimes, however, medical personnel arrive at the scene of an overdose too late or not at all, especially if others present fear retribution by authorities.
That’s why one bill, LD 1686, sponsored by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, would allow naloxone to be prescribed and dispensed to drug users and those most likely to be present for their potential overdose, such as friends or family members. It would also put it in the hands of police and volunteer firefighters. While some Republicans in the Legislature wouldn’t mind giving naloxone to these first responders, they have opposed the most helpful part of the bill: making it available to users and their family and friends. Most overdose fatalities happen at home, with others around, according to the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs.
Rather than debate the basic question of whether naloxone should be more widely available, it would be a better use of the state’s time to discuss how best to educate people about its use. It’s not a panacea but, rather, one tool. Loved ones must be able to tell whether someone is truly overdosing. They must know naloxone only works with opioids; it wouldn’t reverse the effects of bath salts, for instance. It is also not an alternative to proper hospital care. Because its effects may not last longer than the narcotics’ effects, it only buys people a little more time to get medical help. Those are realities, not excuses to deny access to the drug.
LePage hasn’t acknowledged the complexities publicly, however, choosing instead to assert an inaccurate and harmful view on national TV that naloxone helps keep people addicted. If someone who can’t swim failed to wear a life jacket and fell overboard, we doubt LePage would refuse to rescue the person because he or she knew better than to forgo a life jacket. It would be crazy to let someone die to teach a moral lesson. Lawmakers should stop LePage from continuing to effectively punish those suffering from addiction.