updated 11/2/2007 4:47:31 PM ET 2007-11-02T20:47:31

Massachusetts officials next month will begin distributing kits to heroin addicts that include medication to treat overdoses.

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Advocates say the kits will help treat overdoses quickly, safely and without fear of addiction, and will be beneficial in a state where more people die from heroin than firearms.

Each kit contains two doses of a medication called Narcan, which one addict can squirt up the nose of another addict who has overdosed. The drug, known generically as naloxone, causes no long-term side effects, specialists said. A single dose costs about $20.

The program, inspired by similar distributions in Boston, Chicago and New York City, lacks the support of the White House drug control policy council and some substance abuse advocates, including former heroin users.

“It’s a remarkably safe drug,” said Dr. Peter Moyer, medical director for Boston’s fire, police, and emergency medical services. “I’ve used gallons of it in my life to treat patients.”

Heroin and other opiates killed 544 people in Massachusetts in 2005, more than double the number killed by firearms.

Strong demand and low prices make heroin a popular street drug in New England. At $5 or $6 for a small bag, heroin can cost less than a six-pack of beer.

“It’s the perfect storm in all the wrong directions. We talk about availability, price, and potency of the drug,” said Kevin Norton, president of CAB Health & Recovery Services, which will work with the state to provide Narcan in cities and towns on the North Shore.

State Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach, who started the Boston kit distribution program when he worked for the city, emphasized that treatment is still the state’s priority.

“We are aware sadly that despite our efforts, there are people who will not be ready for treatment, and we want to prevent them from dying from a fatal overdose before we have an opportunity to convince them to get into treatment,” he said.

Heroin and other opiates killed 544 people in Massachusetts in 2005, more than double the number killed by firearms.

Some paramedics and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy question whether it’s safe for one addict to administer medical treatment to another. Others said the distribution of Narcan encourages continued heroin use and delays entry into treatment.

“You give them the Narcan, where is their motivation to change? The addict is going to say, ’I just overdosed and I got another lease on life — great,”’ said Michael Gimbel, a recovering heroin addict who was director of substance abuse in Maryland’s Baltimore County for 23 years.

“Giving Narcan might give them that false sense that ’I can live forever,’ which is not what we want,” he said.

The state estimates the kit campaign, which is being treated as a test run, will cost less than $50,000 and enroll 450 users. If it saves lives, it may be expanded.

Most of the money will be used to buy the medication. Other costs will be absorbed by four independent agencies that have partnered with the state to enroll users in the North Shore, the Connecticut River Valley, Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts.

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