For the past several weeks, members of my church and I have been operating a syringe exchange program and distributing free naloxone, the opiate-poisoning reversal medication, in Lewiston. I was just informed that law enforcement plans to be present for our next shift Wednesday, and that I’d face criminal charges if I offer syringes.

The Church of Safe Injection is compelled to break the law because of our commitment to humanity, human rights and public health. But because of our commitment to community and our respect for the Lewiston Police, we’ve decided to make one last effort to exhaust all legal options first. We know that the decision to wait will have grave consequences for those struggling in chaotic use, as well as their community. I will continue in my other roles — providing peer support, connecting people with treatment and offering recovery-oriented housing – and I look forward to the day my group can provide this critical health care service as well.

Let me be clear: Even if they say I cannot exchange syringes, I still love and respect the police officers, at least one of whom I consider a good friend. They want to stop drug-poisoning deaths in Maine, they don’t want people to contract preventable disease and they see the good in people. I was moved by a recent Sun Journal piece about one Lewiston officer’s compassion toward a woman who had tried to end her life with drugs. Indeed, the department has undertaken and achieved a lot to help people who are suffering from substance use disorder, and they must be commended for that.

Unfortunately, the War on Drugs has pitted police and public health against one another. It is the fault of the “leaders” at all levels of government who have repeatedly let down already-marginalized people. Where law enforcement and public health should be working together to improve public health, improve the lives of people who have substance use disorder and save us all massive sums of money, we’re instead on opposing sides, and all these things are worsening.

Maine law is perpetuating a status quo in which the lives of people who use drugs are discardable. It’s not politically convenient for our “leaders” to offer our struggling family, friends and neighbors evidence-based, cost-effective, compassionate care — it’s more convenient to let them die.

On Wednesday night I’ll be distributing everything but syringes, though they offer the most potential to improve lives and the community. Syringe exchange programs are shown not to enable drug use but, in fact, to help reduce it. I’ve had many amazing conversations about health, recovery, treatment, sober living, etc., with people accessing our services. In fact, two people whom we’ve served have applied to enter recovery houses and begin their recovery journeys! They got information about the recovery house scholarships when they met members of our church one night for syringes and naloxone.

Syringe exchange programs offer more than an intervention. They offer hope for people who use drugs, who come in as passive service recipients and stay as active service providers. Harm reduction can be transformative when we center the voices of people who use drugs.

When we began doing this, we did not know it was violating any law. We were providing a public health service. We’ve been told that the state will not certify us to run a Lewiston syringe exchange program because of our structure and history. To ensure we can serve those who need our services the most, we’ve partnered with a national group to submit a joint application. We hope to achieve legal status soon. We’ll revisit this issue and the need to violate the law if we can’t overcome these deadly hurdles. We won’t watch our friends and community members suffer because of bad policy.

No matter the weather, we’ll be out there Wednesday night, distributing naloxone and other supplies and having great conversations with beautiful people who may be in tough spots but who do not deserve to fall through the cracks and die.

Jesse Harvey is founder of the Church of Safe Injection, peer support coordinator at Greater Portland Health and a program director at Journey House Recovery.


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