No one had to tell Jesse Harvey that the War on Drugs was a losing cause. He could see that the tools of the criminal justice system could not reverse an epidemic that was killing on average one Mainer every day. Even police chiefs were announcing that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

Jesse Harvey Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Harvey became one of Maine’s leading advocates for harm reduction, a public health approach to substance use that meets people “where they are” in their recovery, trying to prevent injury and death instead of demanding perfect abstinence as a price of admission to treatment.

Harvey did not just talk about these ideas, he acted on them, founding recovery sober houses that accepted people receiving medically-assisted treatment — like the drug Suboxone that prevents cravings. And he started the Church of Safe Injection, based in the back of his red Honda hatchback, from which he distributed clean needles, the overdose antidote naloxone, condoms, alcohol wipes and food along with healthy doses of respect and compassion.

It was an approach that saved lives, but tragically, not Harvey’s. He was found dead in his Portland home on Tuesday, police said, of a possible overdose. He was 28.

Harvey’s death was a loss not just to Maine’s recovery community. The whole state will miss his leadership and fierce advocacy. If the autopsy confirms that he died of an overdose, the way he died should not overshadow the work that he started.

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news this year, but the opioid epidemic has not gone away. In fact, it has gotten worse.

The year started on a record pace for drug overdose deaths, and the social isolation and economic dislocation caused by the pandemic has been linked to drug seeking and use. Police continue to report stronger and more deadly drugs are making their way into the state.

Substance use disorder is an incredibly complex problem that plays out differently in every individual. Years into the crisis, no magic cure has emerged.

We need more treatment options and more safe places for people to live while they get control of their lives. And as long as illicit drug use is a reality, it’s important to make this inherently dangerous activity as safe as it can possibly be. As Harvey preached, that means broad access to naloxone, clean needles and safe injection sites where people who accidentally overdose can be revived and offered treatment.

“All too often today, people who use drugs are offered only two choices: Get sober or die,” Harvey wrote in a 2018 Maine Voices column in the Portland Press Herald. “Jesus would have rejected this shameful and lethal binary. He’d have been on the front lines providing the third option that Maine and the United States so desperately need: harm reduction.”

Harvey’s death should not obscure that message. Rather, it should remind us all about the work that still needs to be done.


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