"Church of Safe Injection" Hopes to Save Lives Through Needle Exchange

"Church of Safe Injection" Hopes to Save Lives Through Needle Exchange

By Paul Gaita 01/16/19

A 26-year-old former drug user turned recovery coach has founded a harm-reduction-based "church" that offers clean needles, Narcan and a welcoming brand of faith-driven dialogue to drug users.

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Used Needle and Syringe
"Our religious belief is simply that people who use drugs don't deserve to die." Andrew Barker | Dreamstime.com

As the viability of safe injection sites continues to be debated across the globe, a 26-year-old former drug user turned recovery coach has found a following with a harm-reduction-based "church" that offers clean needles, the overdose reversal drug Narcan and a welcoming brand of faith-driven dialogue to drug users.

As the Huffington Post noted, the tenets of Jesse Harvey's "Church of Safe Injection" have been taken up by others in eight states, but his efforts have been met with resistance by some law enforcement and health officials who have abided by federal law that prohibits safe injection sites.

Since late 2018, Harvey, who has been in recovery from drug and alcohol dependency for several years, has been operating his "church" from the back of his car, which he stations near a park frequented by drug users in Lewiston, Maine.

With the help of volunteers, he offers free needles and a gospel that emphasizes inclusion and support for those in need. That approach informs the Church's three basic principles: helping those in need, welcoming people of all faiths, as well as atheists, and keeping drug users healthy through harm reduction-based support.

"Our religious belief is simply that people who use drugs don't deserve to die," Harvey told the Huffington Post.

That philosophy has attracted others, especially those with religious backgrounds who have been dismayed by some traditional churches, which have rejected or condemned drug users.

To date, 18 Churches of Safe Injection have been established in eight states, and Harvey hopes to incorporate the Church as a nonprofit in order to apply for religious exemption to the Controlled Substances Act so he can open a legal safe injection site.

However, Harvey's goals run opposite of many state policies regarding needle exchange and safe injection sites. Maine has only six certified needle exchanges, none of which are located in Lewiston, and the state's Center for Disease Control issued strict warnings to those exchanges about regulations after Harvey began attracting media attention.

Eventually, Lewiston police warned him about possible misdemeanor charges for possessing more than 10 syringes at one time, which prompted Harvey to stop handing out clean needles.

However, as the Post feature noted, he continues to offer Narcan and bags of supplies, including saline, alcohol wipes and rubber ties, to those who meet him in Lewiston. Harvey also hopes to start a drug users' union in Maine, which would serve as a center for health and safety advocacy. In an op-ed penned for the Portland Press Herald in late 2018, Harvey summed up his goal for the church: "Politicians, law enforcement, and health care haven't taken the lead here, so our church is."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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