Activists Respond to Gov. LePage Naloxone Veto As Legislature Vote Nears

By Zachary Siegel 04/28/16

On April 29, Maine officials have a chance to override LePage's veto on a bill that aims to allow naloxone availability without a prescription.  

Activists Respond to Gov. LePage Naloxone Veto As Legislature Vote Nears
Photo Office of Governor Paul LePage

Last week, Maine Governor Paul LePage shut down a bill that would expand access to naloxone, the lifesaving antidote to opioid overdose. But advocates are not giving up without a fight. 

Upon vetoing a bill that would have allowed pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription, the governor said, “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose.”

Maine’s legislature unanimously voted in favor of the bill but when it hit the governor's desk, he vetoed it. Adding insult to injury, LePage continued his remarks saying that naloxone creates a situation, “where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of naloxone in the other,” which “produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction.”

The governor's statement has been called offensive, heartless, and unscientific by those who work in the field. In 2015, Maine saw 272 drug overdose deaths, a 31% increase over the previous year. By making naloxone more widely available, this stunning rate would diminish, argues Dr. Joseph Valdez, an addiction medicine physician practicing in Portland. “This medication is effective, fast-acting, safe and non-addicting,” he added. 

Both scientific and advocacy groups alike have taken aim at LePage’s comments. The American Society of Addiction Medicine recently wrote, “Contrary to the Governor’s objections, expanding access to naloxone in Maine will most certainly save lives.” 

Alexis Pleus founded a nonprofit called Truth Pharm after her son died from an accidental overdose. The organization advocates for policy changes in the drug-using world. “I always find it appalling that I never knew what naloxone was and was never told about it until after [my son] passed away, and that was even after he had been to treatment facilities and jail,” Pleus told The Fix in an interview.  

Recently, Truth Pharm published an open letter addressed to Maine senators, urging them to override the governor’s veto. It’s been one of the organization's many missions to get naloxone in the hands of those who need it most, the user’s family and friends. “No one ever told us there was a lifesaving medication available,” Pleus said. 

Countering the governor’s remarks, Pleus said, “Naloxone revival is not a desirable experience for active users.” It can throw the heroin user into immediate withdrawal, a painfully unpleasant experience that users certainly do their best to avoid.

Furthermore, she added, “Users report using less heroin after revival from an overdose likely due to a new level of fear or understanding of the risks associated.” Pleus also mentioned that “fewer overdoses occur in users who have been revived by naloxone use than in those who have never been revived.” There are empirical studies backing up Pleus’ arguments. 

If the Maine bill were to pass, more people would be able to save the lives of their loved ones. “We need to get naloxone into as many hands as possible and specifically those who may be around persons who are at a greater risk,” Pleus said. 

In 2015, over 14 states passed laws expanding access to naloxone, allowing it to be handed out with no prescription required. Currently, there are about 30 states that have passed similar laws.  

The bill in Maine is not dead yet. On April 29, the legislature will vote on vetoed bills, where a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate can override a gubernatorial veto. By organizing and coming together, doctors, scientists, and activists are making their voices heard to sway the vote in favor of the bill. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.