Maine bill would allow drug users’ friends to administer overdose antidote

Narcan restores breathing after an opiate overdose. David Harry | The Forecaster

Narcan restores breathing after an opiate overdose. David Harry | The Forecaster

A medication that halts an opiate overdose in its tracks is in the hands of many Maine first responders, thanks to legislation passed last year. Now, a Waterville lawmaker wants to expand access to the life-saving drug, called naloxone hydrochloride, even further.

Naloxone — known under the brand name Narcan — is a prescription medication that blocks opioid receptors in the brain, halting the euphoria and effects of heroin, methadone, prescription painkillers and other opiates. It triggers an immediate and severe withdrawal, restoring breathing and buying users time to receive help and potentially survive an otherwise fatal overdose.

Available as a nasal spray or injection, naloxone does not provide a high. Drug abusers still must be hospitalized after the medication is administered.

A bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Henry Beck would allow medical professionals to prescribe naloxone to the friends of drug users at risk of overdosing on opiates, along with anyone else “in a position to assist” overdose victims. First responders, medical professionals, and immediate family members of drug users already have access to the medication.

Hospitals have had access to the drug for decades. The law passed last year allowed the drug to be administered by a wider array first responders, including police and firefighters.

The newly proposed legislation also would provide civil and criminal immunity for those who administer naloxone to someone experiencing an opiate overdose. It additionally limits criminal prosecution of people who call 911 to seek help.

“Last year’s naloxone law established an important foundation that I hope to build on with this new bill,” Beck said in a statement. “My proposal can further save lives and improve public safety.”

Gov. Paul LePage expressed reservations about last year’s naloxone legislation, saying the drug’s lifesaving effects could encourage drug users to continue using. He also voiced concerns about providing the medication to firefighters and law enforcement officers with no training its in use, prompting an amendment requiring that instruction before administering the drug. LePage ultimately allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Heroin use and overdoses are on the rise in Maine, a trend police attribute in part to successful efforts to prevent prescription painkillers from being sold on the black market. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has sounded the alarm about a startling increase in fatal heroin overdoses, which jumped from 28 in 2012 to 34 in 2013.

Beck’s proposed legislation also would allow authorized prescribers, such as doctors, to provide “standing orders” for naloxone. That means a prescriber could write a prescription that would be exercised by other designated medical professionals — such as a pharmacist, EMT or public health clinic — as opposed to an individual patient.

The standing order model is used in Massachusetts and California. Certain predetermined conditions typically must be met first, such as training in naloxone’s use.

Speaking of Massachusetts, the attorney general’s office there is calling out the maker of Narcan for hiking the drug’s price in the midst of a spike in overdose deaths, according to the Boston Herald. The price for a kit, which contains two doses of naloxone and an atomizer, jumped from $44.48 last June to $101.98, the paper reported.



Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.