AUGUSTA — A bill that would allow police, firefighters and the general public to administer a drug that potentially could save the lives of people overdosing on heroin cleared a key hurdle Monday in a legislative committee.

In a party-line vote, seven Democrats on the Health and Human Services Committee endorsed the measure, and four Republicans voted against it.

Currently, only medical professionals and licensed paramedics are allowed to administer naloxone, also known by the trade name Narcan. But advocates say there’s no reason the drug couldn’t be given by a family member or neighbor who witnessed an overdose and is waiting for the ambulance to arrive, or if 911 was not immediately called.

The drug is usually given as a nasal spray and goes directly to the brain, where it binds to opioid receptors to stop the effects of an opiate such as heroin and prevent the often-fatal respiratory distress that happens during an overdose.

“This has been successful in many parts of the country. This is a very safe drug and we need to get it out into the community,” said Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock.

The bill, which Gov. Paul LePage’s administration opposes, is now expected to be voted on by the full Legislature. A similar bill was passed by the Legislature last year, but LePage vetoed it. In his veto letter, he wrote that naloxone would “make it easier for those with substance abuse problems to push themselves to the edge, or beyond. It provides a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.”

Overdose deaths from all drugs have been relatively stable in Maine over the past decade – there were 163 in 2012 – but there has been a sharp increase in deaths attributed to heroin. From 2011 to 2012, the number jumped from seven to 28. Officials expect that even more occurred in 2013, for which statistics are not yet available.

Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, opposed the bill Monday, saying that administering drugs to patients should be left to professionals.

“I am uncomfortable giving anyone the authority to administer the drug. I think it sends the wrong message,” Sirocki said.

Sirocki and Republican colleagues on the committee said they support giving police officers and firefighters permission to administer naloxone, but they were uneasy about opening it up to everyone who thinks a drug user is suffering from a heroin overdose. A heroin user’s sudden withdrawal can be violent, and can cause vomiting that dangerously blocks the airway in a patient who already is having problems breathing.

Rep. Katherine Cassidy, D-Lubec, noted that since cancer patients are prescribed morphine, which can be given at home by someone who is not a medical professional, she doesn’t believe allowing the public to administer naloxone would cause any harm.

The bill also would allow caretakers of substance abusers to get a prescription for the drug, which costs about $22 a dose.

Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, the bill’s sponsor, said she was encouraged by the committee’s vote over a “complex bill about a complex substance.”

Currently, 21 states either allow naloxone use or have “good Samaritan” laws on the books that permit the public to administer lifesaving drugs, according to The Network for Public Health Law, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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Twitter: @joelawlorph