Legislation that would allow pharmacists to furnish the overdose antidote drug naloxone without a prescription in certain cases got broad support at a public hearing in Augusta.

Maine already has passed legislation expanding access to naloxone — sometimes called by its brand name, Narcan — to first responders. The drug is used to counter opiate overdoses involving heroin and prescription drugs such as morphine, Percocet and OxyContin. It’s been credited with saving lives in Maine.

Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is proposing pharmacists be trained and allowed to dispense the drug.

“The goal is to allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription while ensuring both pharmacists and the person receiving the prescription are adequately trained and educated about the drug and opportunities to access treatment and recovery services,” she said.

Gideon said CVS pharmacies reached out to her about sponsoring the legislation after independent U.S. Sen. Angus King wrote the company urging it to provide the drug over-the-counter in Maine as it already does in 15 other states.

Gideon’s measure has broad support within the medical community, including Dr. Ron Springle of Windham.

“Narcan has been a lifesaving drug in the hands of medical professionals for years,” Springle says. “It has an impressive safety record, is virtually free of side effects and to my knowledge is not diverted or sold on the black market.”

Several others testified at the hearing about the horrific effect the drug crisis is having on Maine, with increased deaths and hospitalizations.

“This public health issue is affecting some populations in Maine disproportionately,” veteran Ross Hicks with the Harm Reduction Alliance said. “Veterans have an estimated overdose rate of twice the general population, especially among young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Young adults are also more likely to be affected.”

He says seven of every 10 drug treatment admissions in Maine involve people under 35 years old.

No one testified in opposition to the bill, but the city of Bangor’s overdose prevention coordinator addressed one concern that has come up in legislative discussion. Some believe easy access to the antidote could lead to an increase in overuse of opioids. But Keith Myers said there may be any number of reasons why drug users have repeatedly used naloxone.

“I spoke to a sheriff who said, ‘Eight times — eight times I heard about this person getting Narcan. Isn’t that a problem?’” he says. “And I said absolutely, but here are some factors that might be leading to that problem that aren’t the naloxone. One would be lack of access to treatment. Potentially those eight Narcans were the bridge that person needed to get into treatment.”

The original bill was to set up a bulk purchasing process to help lower the cost of naloxone to first responders, hospitals and others. The Maine Municipal Association urged the committee to consider the issue of cost, as local cities and towns are being hit with increasing expenses related to the use of naloxone.