Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill Wednesday that would allow pharmacists to dispense an anti-overdose drug without a prescription, saying that allowing addicts to keep naloxone on hand “serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction.”
The Legislature passed the bill “under the hammer” – or unanimously without a roll call – this month as part of lawmakers’ attempts to address Maine’s growing opioid addiction epidemic.
Maine already allows family members of addicts to receive prescriptions for naloxone hydrochloride – also commonly known by the brand name Narcan – which quickly counteracts the potentially deadly effects of an opiate overdose. The bill, L.D. 1547, aims to make the antidote even more readily available by allowing a pharmacist to dispense naloxone without a prescription to individuals “at risk of experiencing an opioid-related drug overdose” or to a friend or family member of someone at risk.
The legislation would also allow police and fire departments to obtain a supply of naloxone and provides immunity to pharmacists or health care professionals who dispense the antidote when “acting in good faith and with reasonable care.”
But in his veto letter sent to lawmakers on Wednesday, LePage said the bill would allow pharmacists “to dispense naloxone to practically anyone who asks for it.”
“Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose,” LePage wrote, repeating a contention that has caused controversy before. “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.”
Pharmacy chains such as Rite Aid and CVS already dispense naloxone without a prescription in other states. About 30 states allow sales of the drug without a prescription.
CVS requested the bill in Maine after receiving a letter from U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine asking the chain to expand the availability of the antidote. The bill got support from both law enforcement and health organizations during the legislative hearing.
LePage has stirred controversy before with his suggestions that naloxone has become a sort of life-saving crutch for opioid addicts as he points to reports of drug users who have been revived multiple times from overdoses by police or rescue squads. Bill supporters reacted strongly on Wednesday to his statement that the antidote merely extends lives “until the next overdose.”
“With this insensitive statement, Gov. LePage is insinuating that Mainers suffering from addiction are beyond reach – that they cannot be saved,” Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, said in a statement. “I disagree. Narcan can be the difference between an early grave and an intervention that can put an addict on the path to recovery. We know that Narcan saves lives. It is incumbent on us to make sure it is readily available.”
There were 272 drug overdose deaths in Maine in 2015, representing a 31 percent increase over the previous year.
“If we have the chance to save even one life, we must seize it,” House Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said in a statement. “Putting this proven life-saving medication into more hands will save lives and spare families the unthinkable loss of a loved one to a preventable overdose.”
In his veto letter, LePage said the state must address the “root causes of the problem” by stopping drug traffickers bringing heroin into Maine, expanding education and prevention efforts and addressing prescribing practices that provide a gateway to heroin abuse.
The Legislature will take up L.D. 1547 and all other vetoed bills during a session on April 29. It takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to override a gubernatorial veto.