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When You Can’t Veto Harm Reduction

As the month of April drew to a close, a showdown brewed in Maine. Like many parts of the country, the state has seen a spike in opiate abuse in the past several years, culminating in a near doubling of heroin related overdose fatalities between 2014 and 2015. The rise of injection drug use in Maine is connected to a significant increase in acute hepatitis C infection, a trend which is thought to be a warning sign for a potential outbreak of HIV.

It is in this context that legislators in Maine overwhelmingly passed two pieces of legislation, L.D. 1552 and L.D. 1547. The laws provide state funding to support pre-existing syringe services programs in the state and allow pharmacists to prescribe overdose reversal drug naloxone without a prescription, respectively. Facing an overdose epidemic and communities ravaged by addiction, these life-saving interventions transcended partisanship and saw support from across the political spectrum. But then the unthinkable happened: Maine Governor Paul LePage vetoed both bills.

LePage made disparaging comments about the value of naloxone and the lives of people struggling with addiction, stating that, “Naloxone doesn’t truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose,” and that “You know a shot of Narcan is $70 and the person who gets it doesn’t have to pay it back.” His comments created a public backlash, and within days legislators held a successful vote to override the vetoes. The people of Maine will see expanded access to sterile syringes and naloxone despite the Governor’s disapproval.

The fight in Maine is indicative of the shifting narrative about and national response to opiate addiction. More and more, communities are unwilling to continue to condemn those struggling with addiction to death or incarceration. 42 states now have some form of naloxone access legislation, and these laws continue to be strengthened. The decades old ban on federal funding for syringe exchanges has been changed to allow funding for places at risk for an HIV or HCV outbreak.

Harm reduction, whether named or not, is quickly establishing itself as a bipartisan issue. It has become increasingly difficult to find someone who has not experienced tragedy - directly or indirectly - as a result of skyrocketing overdose rates. As the nation begins to share, across all communities, the pain of losing a family member or friend to addiction and overdose, it becomes ever more difficult to maintain the rhetoric of the drug war. This rhetoric becomes even further difficult to maintain as we look back on the lives lost in the drug war with the compassion we only now view the opiate crisis. Hopefully, this bipartisan support for a public health response to the opiate crisis will continue to grow. AIDS United remains committed to supporting policies and legislation that reflect and advance the dignity and rights of people who use drugs.

Posted By: AIDS United Policy Department - Friday, May 06, 2016

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