A Bangor health organization is trying to raise enough money by the end of the month to buy one box of naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote, for every person who fatally overdosed in Maine last year.
It’s the second year in a row that Health Equity Alliance has attempted the August challenge. But this year’s fundraising goal — $31,350 — is loftier than last year’s because the death toll has risen. In 2017, 418 Mainers fatally overdosed, up from 376 in 2016.
Naloxone, known by its brand name Narcan, reverses the effects of opioid overdose, making it one of the few tools to reduce Maine’s record-breaking number of fatal overdoses. Opioid drugs — especially fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid that has become more available — are driving the fatalities, according to state data.
But while many advocates and law enforcement officials have embraced naloxone as a tool to save lives — Bangor police officers started carrying it in July 2016 — others have opposed making it more widely available to the public, believing it enables drug use.
“We’ve certainly searched for ways to have the legislature support us either with funding or laws that improve access, and have been met with hurdles along the way,” said Andrea Littlefield, HEAL’s director of development and communications.
Opposition to increased access for Narcan prompted HEAL to start giving it away for free in 2016.
The organization stocks up on the drug, which requires a prescription, with help from a “standing order” written by Dr. Noah Nesin of Penobscot Community Health Care, Littlefield said. Last March, the Bangor doctor made headlines by announcing he would write a Narcan prescription for any adult who asked.
Still, increasing access to Narcan has some high-profile foes — most notably, Republican Gov. Paul LePage. He has argued that making the antidote more available would encourages drug use. Last year, he unsuccessfully tried to block a state law to make Narcan available at pharmacies and then lobbied to raise the age limit for purchasing it from 18 to 21.
Experts say the path to recovery from opioid addiction is beset with obstacles for those who want to stop using. In Maine, that includes a lack of access to adequate treatment or the fear of withdrawal symptoms.
And even those who start on the path to recovery are prone to relapse, studies show. Between 40 and 60 percent of people in recovery for substance use reportedly relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“I’ve talked to people that have been Narcan’d six times and then finally went into treatment or recovery. Somebody else just might take it one time,” Littlefield said. “Like any individual choice about moving forward with a big change, it depends on the person. … Everyone’s recovery journey is different.”
Her organization said it gave away 252 Narcan “kits,” which contain two doses each, people actively using drugs and who came into it office, which relocated in June from Pine Street to 304 Hancock St.
HEAL’s August fundraising campaign — called “Keep Calm and Carry Naloxone” — is aimed at increasing the number of free kits it is able to give away, Littlefield said. Each Narcan kit costs $75. As of August 10, the organization had only raised around $700 toward its goal, she said.
The campaign will end with an event in Pickering Square on Aug. 31 to train people how to administer Narcan. A similar event took place last year. This year’s will again include a memorial to some of the people who recently died from overdoses, Littlefield said.
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