AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee has approved a bill to put medication that counteracts the life-threatening effects of opiate overdose into the hands of police, firefighters and drug users’ loved ones.
In a party-line vote, members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee backed LD 1686, An Act to Address Preventable Deaths from Drug Overdose, sponsored by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. The vote followed passionate testimony on the bill on Feb. 12 by lawmakers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers and those who have lost friends and relatives to heroin.
Last month, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills sounded the alarm about a startling increase in fatal heroin overdoses in Maine, which jumped from seven in 2011 to 28 in 2012.
The bill would expand the availability of naloxone, a prescription medication that blocks opioid receptors in the brain, halting the euphoria and effects of heroin or other opiates and triggering an immediate and severe withdrawal.
Also known by the brand name Narcan, naloxone is already used in Maine hospitals and ambulances. The legislation would put the medication into the hands of police, volunteer firefighters, drug users and their friends and families, freeing doctors to dispense the medication not only to a drug user at risk but also to anyone likely to witness their potential overdose.
An overdose of heroin or other opiates such as prescription painkillers and methadone can depress breathing and the body’s nervous system, leaving users unconscious. Naloxone restores breathing, allowing users to potentially survive an otherwise fatal overdose. Administered through a nasal spray or injection, naloxone does not provide a high. Drug abusers still must be hospitalized after the medication is administered.
In a work session on the bill Monday, Republicans on the committee voiced concerns about laypeople without medical training administering the drug, which results in sudden and violent withdrawal and can cause vomiting and aspiration. Republicans supported distribution and use of the drug among police, firefighters and other first responders, however.
Last year, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a similar bill, saying that widening access to naloxone would provide “a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.”
“I just think it sends a message that I’m not comfortable with, to have other than first responders with this medication,” said committee member Rep. Heather Sirocki R-Scarborough.
Democrats argued in favor of putting naloxone into the hands of drug users’ friends and loved ones, noting that other states have found success expanding naloxone’s availability.
“The alternative is that people are dying. … There is a way to save those people’s lives,” Gideon said.
Lawmakers have expanded access to the medication in 17 states and Washington, D.C.
Naloxone already can be prescribed to drug users in Maine, but proponents of the bill argued that addicts in the throes of an overdose can’t administer the drug to themselves. LD 1686 would allow a drug user’s friends and family members to obtain, possess and administer the drug.
The original bill would have provided civil and criminal immunity for those who administer naloxone to someone they believe to be experiencing an opiate overdose. Committee members adjusted that language to authorize individuals to possess and administer the medication.
In an amendment, the committee voted to require pharmacies to provide instructions about naloxone’s use and effects to inform drug users and their loved ones about the medication.
The bill now heads to the Maine House of Representatives for further votes.