The increasingly disgusting debate over Narcan

Does anyone out there truly believe that Gov. Paul LePage wants people to die?

The unfortunate truth is that yes, a lot of people do. So deeply held is the hatred for LePage by some, that many are not only saying that the governor is a hateful, spiteful person who wants people to die, they actually believe it.

At issue is the governor’s veto of a bill that would increase the availability of the drug naloxone, also known as Narcan, for addicts who are at risk of an overdose.

A Bangor Daily News editorial this week suggested that LePage had intentionally “devalued” the lives of addicted Mainers. He is apparently prepared to let them die, because he doesn’t care about them. Columnist David Farmer believes LePage looks at a dead junkie and thinks to himself, “good riddance.”

People who make these types of assumptive arguments about how much value LePage places on any life should be ashamed of themselves.

Governor Tom Wolf via Flickr.

Governor Tom Wolf via Flickr.

Narcan works by blocking the effects of opioids, and essentially “reverses” their effect, allowing someone who has experienced an overdose to stop their impending death.

The bill in question that LePage vetoed would expand access to it by allowing a pharmacist to dispense the drug to an addict, turning it into an overdose EpiPen that drug users could carry with them.

“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,” wrote LePage in his veto message.

The governor’s critics howled, calling LePage an unconcerned monster, cold and indifferent to the death of Mainers facing addiction.

But that is tremendously unfair and does the debate about this very important issue a disservice.

Honestly, if you think the governor doesn’t care about Mainers facing addiction, and wants them to die, then honestly you need to take some real stock in just how polluted your mind has grown from politics.

I have listened to the governor, dozens of times, in public and in private, talk about drug abuse and addiction. There are few issues that make him as passionate and animate his desire to do something positive as this one does.

It is a very complicated issue that deserves to be fully debated and considered, not treated to soundbites and emotional ivory tower lectures.

Yes, Narcan, in the immediate moment, can save somebody’s life. If a person is experiencing an overdose and receives the drug, he or she will be saved. There is no one, including the governor, who disputes that.

Were the drug not to exist at all, addicts would know there is a risk of a deadly overdose, and while that may not stop them from doing it, the possibility will enter into their brains and it will, even if only subtly, influence their decision making.

Addiction specialists often dismiss that logic, saying “that isn’t how addiction works” — and to some degree they are right. Addicts aren’t as cognizant of consequences, ergo they don’t let those types of thoughts enter into their mind.

But to suggest it has no impact is nonsense. Even if the threat of consequence isn’t a primary driving factor, it is absolutely a consideration and something that can change behavior. If you have spent any time around drug addicts — and I certainly have — you’ve likely heard the rationalizations.

With a Narcan “EpiPen” in their pocket, a safety net is created, and if you think that won’t be in the back of an addict’s mind as well, you’re kidding yourselves. Hospitals often see the same emergency patient who has received Narcan five, six, eight, 10 or 12 times.

The question is, what does that do to addiction broadly? Does it normalize it? Does it make it worse? Does it remove the threat of dangerous consequences and make a user feel more invincible? Does it make people who don’t use harder drugs more likely to try them because they now feel like there is an “antidote” available if they make a mistake?

The governor believes the answer to those questions is yes. Critics of his veto believe no. There is believable research on both sides of the debate.

Were I the governor, I would think as LePage does, that the answer is yes, but I would probably still allow access, believing that the benefits outweighed the harm.

But at the end of the day, the real point is that this is a topic that deserves real discussion, and the seriousness that befits the subject. What it doesn’t deserve is demagoguery and hatred, and the assumption of the worst motivations in our public servants. That benefits no one.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.