Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday declared that an overdose-reversing drug he previously criticized is actually effective at saving lives — but that he still wants drug abusers to pay for it or be sent to rehab.
“I believe that Narcan will save lives. However, if you allow it to go 12, 13, 14, 15 times with the shots, the odds are against you,” the governor said Tuesday. “We have to say when we give you a shot: ‘You have to go to rehab or pay for it.’”
Narcan is the brand name of naloxone and can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
The governor’s comments at a Bangor forum on substance abuse came after he last year vetoed a bill, which has since become law, to allow pharmacists to dispense to medicine without a prescription. At that time, LePage said, “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose.”
His press secretary said Wednesday that both of LePage’s statements are true.
“The governor has said the initial shot will save lives,” Adrienne Bennett said. “And he also believes that if someone is administered multiple shots it is a false security.”
Three times on Tuesday, LePage repeated a statement about his apparent change in thinking.
“You finally come to the realization that you can’t put a price on life,” LePage said. “We can’t.”
LePage has sponsored several bills on substance abuse, which last year claimed the lives of 376 people in Maine by overdose, with 84 percent caused by opiates or in combination with an opiate.
He said that the state has made “very little progress” in addressing an opioid crisis that last year killed more than twice as many people in Maine than vehicle crashes.
“We want Maine people … to be free from addiction — not just opioid addiction, but alcohol or other drugs,” LePage said at the gathering at Crosspoint Church on Broadway. “For the next year and a half that I have left [as governor], I am not backing down.”
This year LePage sponsored two drug-related bills that failed, one that would have forced towns to charge people revived more than once by an opiate overdose antidote and another that would essentially treat alcohol and drug use by pregnant women as child abuse.
LePage drew applause at the forum, sponsored by the American Conservative Union Foundation and Christian Civic League of Maine, for saying faith-based drug treatment is effective and that the state needs to do a better job of teaching young people about the dangers of drug use.
LePage said that according to experts he has consulted, “90 percent of this generation on drugs will die before we get ahold of this” and that “the best advice … was to head to the middle school and start educating our kids.” He added, “We’ve lost the high school crowd.”
LePage provided a short history of how over prescribed pain medications led to Maine’s opiate addiction problem. He said when laws were put into place to limit prescriptions and doctor shopping, heroin emerged as a cheaper alternative.
“We’ve cut the opiate prescribing in the state of Maine by 50 percent,” LePage said. “We are having success in the opiate prescribing world, but we are not having success in the illicit world.”
Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, who was on a panel of local law enforcement officers who spoke just before LePage arrived, said faith-based recovery programs at the county jail do seem to work.
“It’s better than any medication,” Morton said.
When a church member asked what his small congregation could do, the sheriff suggested a simple solution:
“Open the doors. The biggest problem is the stigma. We have to realize this is a social problem that affects us all.”