AUGUSTA — House Speaker Sara Gideon has proposed allowing pharmacists to dispense opioid overdose reversal drugs to Mainers of any age without a prescription, after the LePage administration successfully pushed to set the minimum age at 21.

In February, Maine’s Board of Pharmacy approved long-delayed rules that would allow Mainers age 21 and over to obtain naloxone – also known as Narcan – without a prescription as the state continues to grapple with the opioid addiction crisis. The Legislature had passed a bill in 2016 directing the pharmacy board to develop the rules, but they were delayed for nearly two years in part because Gov. Paul LePage opposed the measure. In a final compromise, the LePage administration approved the rules after the board agreed to increase the minimum age from 18 to 21.

Gideon, D-Freeport, criticized the age change at the time. And this week, she introduced a late-session bill that would allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone “to any individual of any age who is at risk of experiencing an opioid-related overdose, is a member of the immediate family of, or a friend of, an individual at risk . . . or is in a position to assist an individual at risk.”

“Addiction knows no age and overdoses can strike anyone at any time,” Gideon said in a prepared statement. “We lost 418 lives in 2017. We can no longer ignore the impact of this epidemic, disregard the underlying causes or the lack of access to needed treatment. This legislation seeks to redress the previous actions, which had no basis in medical research or expert opinion and was merely a petulant action at the behest of Governor LePage that directly contradicted legislative intent.”

More than 40 other states allow naloxone to be dispensed without a prescription, making Maine a national outlier despite the severity of the opioid crisis in the state. Prescription and illegal opioids were responsible for 354 of Maine’s 418 overdose deaths last year, with the powerful synthetic fentanyl now surpassing heroin as the deadliest substance. While some other states have seen opioid-related overdose deaths decline or stabilize, the number of overdose deaths continues to climb in Maine.

Substance abuse experts, law enforcement and health organizations have all strongly supported increasing access to naloxone, which can quickly reverse the deadly effects of an opioid overdose. Yet LePage has steadfastly opposed legislative efforts to make naloxone available without a prescription, despite the worsening crisis in Maine, the reversal drug’s effectiveness and the fact that is has no harmful side effects.

“Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose,” LePage wrote in his veto letter for the original 2016 bill. “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.”

Although approved in February, the rules allowing pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription have yet to take effect. The pharmacy board has scheduled an April 5 public hearing on the rules, two years after the Legislature passed a bill – and then overrode a LePage veto – directing the board to write and adopt rules to allow the practice.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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