This past Christmas Eve, the Church of Safe Injection held a service, led by its founder, in Worcester, MA.
Jesse Harvey, the founder of the church, stood by the open trunk of his car, a Honda Fit. Harvey, who likes to call himself a harm reduction disciple and safe-injection acolyte, offered those who approached his car the "body and blood" of the church: clean syringes, naloxone, fentanyl testing strips, and alcohol wipes.
Naloxone is an overdose-reversal drug designed to save the lives of people suffering from an otherwise fatal drug overdose.
Harvey, 26, is a recovering addict. He started the church in his home state of Maine back in September. In just a few months several branches opened up in a handful of states.
Harvey founded the church out of frustration with local officials who were not responding to the opioid crisis. “I was working in recovery houses for about a year before I realized, wait a minute: These 418 people in Maine who died last year in 2017 from drug poisoning, what were we doing for them?” After six months of getting nowhere with the city council of Portland, ME, Harvey gave up on lobbying for them to open an overdose prevention site. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
Other people have been stepping up to open their own congregations. In fact, there is already a standard protocol to open a new branch of the church. Those participating in the church must agree to be completely interfaith, including supporting atheists and other non-believers, and they must support all marginalized groups, as well as embrace scientifically-informed harm reduction.
Hallelujah! That already is a lot better than many churches that purport to offer aid to the needy, but use the opportunity as a tool to proselytize.
Those who start up their own congregation can expect to begin in-person meetings depending on the need and capacity. Meetings can include prayer, protests, training, needle exchange, organizing advocacy campaigns, or facilitating safe injection.
In this op-ed, published in October, Harvey explained why he started the church. He wrote, "Overwhelmingly, the churches I’ve reached out to aren’t interested in helping people who use drugs."
"They [the churches] won’t provide them [drug users] with what they often need most: sterile syringes, naloxone and nonjudgmental support," he continued. "If syringes had been around in Jesus’ day, He would have supported safe injection, and He would have made sure that the people He hung out with had access to sterile supplies. All too often today, people who use drugs are offered only two choices: Get sober or die."
Every day, more than 130 people die from opioid overdose in the United States. In 2017, more than 72,000 people died from overdose, and nearly 50,000 of those were opioid-related, according to a CDC estimation. The opioid epidemic has become a massive health crisis in this country.
From an economic perspective, in 2013 it is estimated that the cost burden of opioid use disorders, overdoses, and deaths in the United States was $78 billion.
Supervised injection sites have been operating in Europe for decades, and studies have shown they can have an impact on several factors related to epidemic addiction. They lead to fewer overdose deaths, may lower infectious disease transmission, and reduce public drug use as well as discarded needles in public areas. One study found a 67% reduction in ambulance calls for overdoses.
Even just offering access to clean syringes has been shown to have a big impact on HIV infection, according to the CDC.
Workers at safe injection sites also offer information on treatment programs, and can refer people to those programs when they are ready.
Despite mounting evidence that supervised injection sites provide many benefits, the United States is lagging behind most of the western world when it comes to implementing these life-saving programs. Federal law prohibits supervised injection sites, although that has not stopped some states from pursuing opening locations. The Justice Department in 2018 threatened "swift and aggressive" legal action against any local governments that opened safe injection sites within their borders.
Because of the federal government's opposition to these kinds of services, Harvey finds himself on rocky legal ground. He is hoping to take advantage of a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that allowed a religious sect to import hallucinogenic ayahuasca, which is brewed as a tea for religious rituals.
I hope that Harvey is able to find better legal footing for his efforts. Usually on this site I am critical of religious groups, but Harvey's church is focused on scientifically-backed approaches to harm prevention among drug users, and he opens the trunk of his car to everyone, regardless of faith, ethnicity, or background. He does not proselytize, instead he offers the kind of help that many of these people need the most. And he is doing it while opening himself up to potentially serious legal repercussions.
In my opinion, we could use a lot more people like Jesse Harvey as long as the opioid crisis continues to ravage our communities.
If you would like to follow or support the Church of Safe Injection, you can find their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/safeinjection