What’s “vulgar” about the word Narcan?
Nothing, said Stephen Murray, an overdose researcher and community implementation specialist at Boston Medical Center.
It’s the brand name for the drug naloxone, a life-saving tool that reverses opioid overdoses. And advocates like Murray say it should be more widely available and carried by both first-responders and the loved ones of those battling addiction.
“Narcan has saved tens of thousands of lives here in Massachusetts,” said Murray, 34, a former paramedic who is also in recovery. “I’ve used it to save over 100 lives myself, alone.”
But when Murray applied for a “NARCAN” vanity license plate at the state Registry of Motor Vehicles in October, officials there initially saw things differently.
In a rejection letter, which Murray posted on Twitter in November, the state agency said the six-letter word was “vulgar in that it is in poor taste or is degrading or is considered a profanity, including a swear or curse word, not usually displayed in the community for general viewing.”
For Murray, that was nonsense. And as an advocate for de-stigmatizing the medication and the people who need it, he felt like he couldn’t let it slide.
He didn’t give up, and in the end, he got his plate — a small victory on his mission to challenge taboos about drug use and help spread awareness about naloxone’s benefits.
The Massachusetts @MassRMV denied my application for a vanity plate for either NARCAN or NALXNE - stating that it was “vulgar…in poor taste…not usually displayed in the community for general viewing” - a medication that has saved thousands of our residents and my friends. pic.twitter.com/UP5V18oqA9— Stephen Murray, MPH, NRP (@stephenHRNRP) November 12, 2022
Murray said he was inspired to apply for the vanity plate after seeing a Globe article in March about the “funny, strange, silly (and sad)” ones that had been issued by the RMV. One plate, he noticed, read “BOTOX.”
If someone can drive around with that brand-name drug affixed to their bumper, shouldn’t he be able to do the same with Narcan?
“I thought, ‘Maybe it’ll spark conversation,’” he said.
So in October, Murray filed applications with the state agency, submitting both “NARCAN” and “NALXNE,” a shortened version of the drug’s scientific name.
To explain his unique request, he added a short description of his work promoting the medication’s use and history as a paramedic and overdose survivor.
He was disappointed, however, when the RMV turned him down. As the Globe article revealed, plenty of other plates with questionable names — “BIMBO,” “BOOGER,” and “WTF” among them — had made the cut. Why not his?
“To me, those were much more vulgar than the word Narcan,” he said.
Undeterred, Murray vented his frustration on Twitter in November. Soon, other experts in his field of research chimed in to criticize the RMV’s stance.
“Stigma is alive and thriving in Massachusetts,” one harm reduction activist wrote.
“Shameful,” said a pharmacy professor, adding that the RMV “should be embarrassed and reverse this ASAP.”
Eventually, it did.
A few weeks after he posted his tweet, an RMV representative called to apologize and let him know they decided to approve the plate. It came in the mail last week.
Thanks to everyone’s help on here, the RMV reversed their decision. Proud to help destigmatize a medication that has saved so many lives! pic.twitter.com/t8sPFrVCrY— Stephen Murray, MPH, NRP (@stephenHRNRP) January 5, 2023
Murray said he has no hard feelings for the RMV, which confirmed to the Globe that it rejected, and then approved, the plate.
Officials did not elaborate on how it made its decision. But for Murray, it’s a step in the right direction.
“Who knows how many minds we may have changed within the RMV just by doing that,” he said. “My goal was to raise awareness about the medication, and it worked.”
Raising naloxone awareness is a calling for Murray, and he knows how to reach an audience.
In 2019, when he gave a speech at an event in North Adams while wearing his paramedic’s uniform, and “came out” as an opioid user in long-term recovery, a video clip of his talk was shared widely online.
It inspired him to get a Master of Public Health degree at Boston University, and share his message wherever — and however — he could.
Since then, Murray has led training sessions for police and fire departments across the state, urging them to carry Narcan with them at all times. He also founded New England’s Never Use Alone hotline, which connects people with volunteers to chat with them while using drugs, and call for help if they overdose.
Murray wants to keep pushing for more conversations about naloxone, and hopes people who see his eye-catching plate will ask about it.
It’s already happening. On Wednesday, a member at his gym spotted his car in the parking lot, and confronted him about the message stamped on his bumper.
“Someone came in and was like, ‘Hey, who’s got the Narcan plate on their car?’” he said. “It actually started a debate at the gym.”
Murray said he was able to address some of the person’s misconceptions about naloxone, and believes he has his new plate to thank.
“He had some stigmatizing views toward Narcan, but by the end of it he had a different mindset,” he said. “If I can change one person’s mind that we should be encouraging people to carry Narcan, it’s worth it.”
Spencer Buell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerBuell.