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New ‘Church’ Wants To Save Lives — By Offering A Safe Place To Shoot Up

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LEWISTON, Maine ― Some are calling him Narcan Jesus.

However Jesse Harvey, a 26-year-old restoration coach with lengthy sideburns and a Che Guevara T-shirt simply seen beneath his unzipped black raincoat, isn’t having it. “I’m not Jesus,” he stated. He’s, nonetheless, the founder and face of the provocatively named Church of Protected Injection.  

What units the Church of Protected Injection aside from faith-based habit restoration applications is its insistence on science, a tenet Harvey, who went by the 12-step program a couple of years in the past and is in restoration from habit to alcohol, opioids and methamphetamine, holds intently. “It’s a miracle that I’m sober proper now,” Harvey stated. “My restoration was under no circumstances evidence-based,” he added, referring to habit remedy backed by scientific proof. “In truth, plenty of it was evidence-hostile.”

Additionally setting it aside: It’s not really a church. Or a faith. At the least, not but.

Removed from a brick-and-mortar home of worship, Harvey has been working the “church” out of the again of his Honda Match since October. One evening every week, he parks his automobile by Lewiston’s Kennedy Park, the place drug customers usually congregate, and, together with a bunch of volunteers, distributes clear needles and Narcan, a model of the overdose-reversal antidote naloxone, to anybody who stops by. All of the whereas, Harvey preaches that Jesus would have embraced and supported individuals who use medication, not shunned them. His philosophy has confirmed to be an interesting refuge for some non secular folks, who say they’re pissed off that conventional church congregations have turned their backs on the susceptible within the midst of a drug overdose disaster.

These folks have taken up Harvey’s trigger, establishing 18 branches of the church throughout eight states. Every should abide by the group’s solely three guidelines: Congregations are required to welcome folks of all faiths, atheists included; to serve all marginalized folks; and, most significantly, to assist hurt discount, which entails retaining drug customers protected and wholesome, as an alternative of focusing solely on getting them into habit remedy.

Harvey has plans to include the church as a nonprofit, after which to use for a non secular exemption to the Managed Substances Act in order that he can open a protected injection website, the place drug customers who aren’t prepared for remedy would be capable to inject in a clear, protected place, beneath supervision.

His timing couldn’t be extra pressing. Drug overdose deaths set a report in 2017, killing greater than 70,000 Individuals and surpassing different lethal crises like HIV, automobile crashes and gun violence throughout their peak years. Nearly all of these deaths, practically 49,000 of them, have been linked to opioids. Harvey feels sure that the 418 overdose deaths that occurred in Maine in 2017 may have been prevented.

Those that resist instituting these strategies of hurt discount argue that these methods jeopardize public security and allow extra drug use. Analysis exhibits that’s not true.

“We’ve got a long time of options exhibiting that these deaths will be prevented,” Harvey stated. “Our non secular perception is just that individuals who use medication don’t should die.”

The science on needle exchanges is resoundingly clear. Quite a few research, backed by each the World Well being Group and the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, point out that these companies cut back the transmission of bloodborne illnesses like HIV and hepatitis C, lower down on the variety of used needles in public areas and join folks who use medication to habit remedy.

In October, Harvey defined his rationale for beginning the church in an op-ed he wrote for the Portland Press Herald.

“All too usually as we speak, individuals who use medication are supplied solely two decisions,” he wrote.

“Get sober or die. Jesus would have rejected this shameful and deadly binary. He’d have been on the entrance strains offering the third possibility that Maine and the USA so desperately want: hurt discount. Naloxone, protected injection websites, sterile syringes, the works.”

However regardless of the proof supporting them, needle exchanges stay controversial, particularly in rural areas, the place licensed exchanges are sparse. In components of the southern and western United States, they’re nonetheless banned altogether. In Maine, there are solely six licensed needle exchanges, most of that are clustered in a handful of counties within the southern a part of the state, leaving giant swaths of drug customers in northern Maine with out dependable entry to scrub syringes. There’s not one in Lewiston.

“We’re closing in on the top of the second decade of this disaster,” stated Leo Beletsky, an affiliate professor of regulation and well being science at Northeastern College. “The truth that we’re nonetheless having these discussions round syringe trade, particularly, is extraordinarily irritating.”

Much more controversial are supervised injection websites, which have but to realize a foothold within the U.S., even in giant, progressive cities. Regardless of analysis in Europe, Australia and Canada demonstrating their potential to avoid wasting lives, they continue to be prohibited beneath federal regulation.

A lack of public health services in Maine paved the way for experimental initiatives like the Church of Safe Injection.


Nicolas Ortega for HuffPost

A scarcity of public well being companies in Maine paved the best way for experimental initiatives just like the Church of Protected Injection.

If the Church of Protected Injection looks like a ragtag operation with quixotic plans, the authorities aren’t taking it that means.

The response to Harvey’s efforts was swift.

By the top of November, the Maine CDC had despatched letters with a stern reminder in regards to the guidelines for cell exchanges to the organizations that run the state’s licensed exchanges. Whereas Harvey wasn’t talked about within the letter, Maine CDC spokeswoman Emily Spencer confirmed that “latest media protection of Mr. Harvey’s endeavor” had prompted the letters.

On the similar time, after weeks of turning a blind eye to the uncertified cell trade working lower than a block from the police station in Lewiston, the police division warned Harvey that he could possibly be charged with a misdemeanor if he continued to provide out free needles.

It’s unlawful to own greater than 10 syringes at a time in Maine. If Harvey had adopted that regulation, he would have solely legally been capable of serve one individual per evening, he stated. As a substitute, he stocked his trunk with as many as a thousand needles.

“[Harvey] is aware of the legal guidelines and crimes for which he could possibly be charged if he possesses or distributes hypodermic apparatuses,” Lt. David St. Pierre of the Lewiston Police Division advised HuffPost in a press release, noting that the division had been in contact with the Maine CDC.

By all outward appearances, Harvey has complied with the directive to cease distributing syringes out of his automobile, though he continues to distribute different provides, together with naloxone.

Harvey stated he didn’t suppose the state CDC would approve his utility to begin a licensed trade due to his felony report associated to his personal struggles with habit, however stated the church would exhaust its authorized choices earlier than knowingly breaking the regulation. The state CDC does take felony convictions into consideration when contemplating purposes, although they’re not mechanically disqualifying, based on Spencer, its spokeswoman.

And Harvey hasn’t dominated out the prospect of civil disobedience sooner or later.

“There’s no one higher to get arrested than a darling media restoration boy who opened 5 sober homes and is white, male, heterosexual and cisgender,” he stated.

His understanding bravado remembers a storied historical past of civil disobedience and activism, relationship again to the crusaders who ran unlawful needle exchanges in the course of the AIDS disaster of the 1980s and ’90s.

“Public well being innovation has usually pushed the boundaries of the regulation, and the regulation has adopted,” Beletsky stated. “Oftentimes, public well being officers don’t lead, they comply with.”

“I want the CDC would do extra to assist hurt discount across the nation, as an alternative of getting in the best way,” he added.

Civil disobedience paid off in New York Metropolis, the place in 1991, a choose dominated in favor of a bunch of activists often known as the “Needle Eight,” who have been arrested for attempting to distribute free syringes. The specter of AIDS was extra damaging than any hurt attributable to violating the needle possession statute, the choose defined, noting that AIDS was threatening lots of of 1000’s of lives. 

“This court docket is happy that the character of the disaster going through town, coupled with the medical proof supplied, warranted the defendants’ motion,” the choose dominated.

Our non secular perception is just that individuals who use medication don’t should die.
Jesse Harvey, founding father of the Church of Protected Injection

Past the specter of a Maine CDC crackdown, Harvey and the Church of Protected Injection face a fair harder street forward of their quest to make use of faith to skirt the federal guidelines banning protected injection websites.

Analysis from Europe, Canada and Australia, which have operated protected consumption websites for many years, signifies that they might lower illness transmission, drive down emergency calls and cut back deadly overdoses. However in the USA, motion has lagged behind the proof.

In Portland, Maine, the place Harvey tried to begin a dialog about protected injection websites at a metropolis council assembly final yr, a city-authorized protected injection website appeared all however off the desk. It was that stonewalling on the native stage that prompted Harvey to take issues into his personal palms, he stated.

Larger cities like New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle, are continuing with plans for supervised consumption websites, even because the Justice Division has vowed swift and aggressive motion in opposition to any violator of the federal regulation in opposition to injection websites.

But important public conversations about protected injection have largely been remoted in a handful of municipalities. “[It’s] proof that nowhere close to sufficient public well being professionals are taking this significantly,” Harvey stated.

In that fraught setting, Harvey sees a non secular exemption as a gap. As precedent, he cited a 2006 Supreme Court docket ruling that discovered a small non secular sect may proceed to import ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea, for its non secular rituals.

Eugene Volokh, who teaches non secular regulation on the UCLA Faculty of Legislation, stated that it’s definitely doable for a small non secular group to prevail in an exemption case. The 2006 ayahuasca case solely included about 130 folks within the American department, he stated. However in contrast to the Church of Protected Injection, that faith was based in Brazil 45 years earlier than the Supreme Court docket dominated within the group’s favor. “It does assist if it appears to be like like one thing that wasn’t simply made up for authorized functions,” Volokh stated.

Public well being innovation has usually pushed the boundaries of the regulation, and the regulation has adopted.
Leo Beletsky, affiliate professor of regulation and well being science, Northeastern College

In November, earlier than the police crackdown, a bunch of volunteers, together with a public well being employee, a meals pantry organizer and a substance abuse counselor who had beforehand been a avenue minister, circled up across the trunk of Harvey’s automobile within the half-light.

“We’re going to destigmatize public well being,” he advised them.

Because the evening wore on, Harvey and Kandice Little one, one of many Church of Protected Injection’s founding members, tag-teamed the sluggish stream of individuals choosing up provides, asking them to love the church on Fb and providing up their companies for serving to return used needles for disposal. Different volunteers crammed paper luggage with saline, cotton balls, alcohol wipes, cookers, rubber ties and condoms, logging provides given out and used needles collected.

“If you wish to become involved and assist us do that, I’m actually concerned about organising a drug customers’ union in Maine,” Harvey advised a person choosing up provides. Organizing was much less about utilizing medication and extra about advocating for drug customers’ well being, wellness and security, he defined, and drug customers themselves needs to be on the entrance strains of that advocacy.

The person nodded and tucked Harvey’s enterprise card, figuring out him as a “disciple & acolyte,” into his pocket.

“God bless,” Little one known as out as the person receded into the darkness.

So long as they comply with the church’s three fundamental tenets, the sister branches of the Church of Protected Injection are free to function as they see match, and to this point, the motion has centered round marrying non secular teachings with selling the rights and security of drug customers.

In Charles City, West Virginia, Shannon Hicks, 38, who used IV heroin, cocaine and prescription opioids for practically 20 years, stated she felt “fully shunned” by her Christian church whereas she was actively utilizing medication. “I attempted going to church and praying away my habit,” she stated. “I attempted to do every little thing that good folks did.” When she wanted it most, the church deserted her, and finally her fellow churchgoers’ hypocrisy ate away at her, she defined.

So when Hicks noticed Harvey sporting a Church of Protected Injection T-shirt at a hurt discount convention this fall, she knew she needed to become involved. Days later, she based her personal small department in Charles City, which now has round 17 members and a rising Fb following.

Now when she does peer-to-peer outreach and palms out clear provides, she tells folks in regards to the Church of Protected Injection.

“For people who find themselves actively utilizing, at first they chuckle after which they actually like the concept,” she stated. “It is a church I would really go to.”

Usually, the non secular people who find themselves flocking to the church have members of the family or mates who’ve been affected by opioids, or have been affected themselves, Harvey stated.

“I don’t suppose they’ve seen church buildings doing sufficient about this difficulty.”

Luke, a member of the Church of Protected Injection based mostly in Bangor, Maine, requested to not be recognized by his actual identify as a result of he feared the sort of police crackdown Lewiston was experiencing. “We’re serving to lots of people and I don’t need of us to be afraid to talk with me,” he stated.

Luke works in hurt discount and joined the Church of Protected Injection as a result of he was pissed off that non secular folks weren’t doing extra to assist drug customers.

“All folks of religion proper now are doing goes to funerals,” he stated.

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