Clean syringes, sterile water, tourniquets and anti-overdose naloxone – these are some of the things people who use drugs need to protect themselves and others from overdoses during the epidemic. opioids. Soon, those in five cities in Maine will have another trusted place to get them.
The Church of Safe Injection, a nonprofit organization that provides harm reduction supplies and overdose reversal training for people who use drugs, has been licensed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention last week running syringe service programs in Westbrook, Lewiston, Rumford, Dixfield and Bethel.
Life under the pandemic has exacerbated the conditions of an opioid epidemic already to devastating levels. The closures have isolated people with drug addiction, cutting them off from social contacts and straining recovery and harm reduction programs in the state.
Overdose cases in Maine and the United States reached record highs in 2020 and continued to increase in 2021, with an average of 50 deaths per month.
Last year, Governor Janet Mills issued an executive order temporarily removing a rule that required needle exchange programs to collect one used syringe for every clean syringe they donate to maximize the availability of clean syringes during the pandemic . The move was applauded by the American Medical Association as the organization’s president, Patrice A. Harris, called sterile syringe programs a “proven harm reduction strategy.”
The Church of Safe Injection began as an unauthorized needle exchange and naloxone distribution program founded by Jesse Harvey, a tireless and charismatic harm reduction advocate who died of an overdose last year in age 28.
Prior to his relapse and sudden death, Harvey had been for years one of the most visible forces on the pitch helping the Mainers fight addiction. He founded the first Journey House, which became a network of sober homes for low-income Recovering Mainers.
Harvey also used to flout state restrictions prohibiting the group from distributing needles to drug addicts, believing the need for clean needles was greater than the state’s “one-for-one” rule. He fought with state officials, which shook his faith in state-sanctioned routes to tackle the opioid epidemic.
“He felt the certification process would take too long and was angry with a lot of people in the state for not doing enough after watching friends and relatives die from drug-related deaths,” said Zoe Brokos, director of the Church of Safe Injection. operations.
Harvey was not convinced that seeking a business license was the way to go. The new management of the group has decided so.
Harvey’s friend Kari Morissette took on the role of CEO after his death last September, picking up pieces of the church’s mission statement. Two months later, Brokos left a position with the City of Portland’s Public Health Division she had held for 10 years to become the church’s director of operations.
The new management did not continue Harvey’s practice of handing out clean needles to drug addicts without the approval of the Maine CDC, in hopes of restoring relations with state officials. In January, they began the certification application process, gathering letters of recommendation from recovery groups and working with the Maine CDC and Gordon Smith, the state’s director of opioid response.
They have spent the spring and summer advocating for harm reduction bills in the legislature, distributing naloxone for other syringe programs, and strengthening relationships with recovery communities. that Harvey had created.
Harvey’s unauthorized work damaged some valuable relationships with state officials, but also developed a layer of trust between the group and vulnerable drug users who could use their supplies to stay safe. This confidence has helped the current leadership of the Church to strengthen its application. With certification, it becomes the ninth syringe service program in the state.
Her job at the Portland Public Health Division gave Brokos a lot of experience in the field, but she came away frustrated with her services.
She lamented that Harvey’s work often fell on deaf ears in city government.
“People don’t want to hear it, that’s a downside,” Brokos said. “It’s easier to say he’s crazy or he’s stuffed with drugs or whatever. I never want to be a part of it again. “
According to the Portland Police Department, 175 overdoses were reported in Portland from Jan.1 to Aug.31, with 14 deaths. This is a slight decrease from previous years, when there were 208 overdoses during the same period in 2019 and 2020.
But city health officials caution against viewing those numbers as an improvement because people struggling with drug addiction and homelessness may have been pushed out of city limits.
“There aren’t that many people in the city of Portland right now,” said Bridget Rauscher, program manager for the public health division. “I don’t think we’re in constant decline. “
Adjacent communities like South Portland and Westbrook might see them instead. Westbrook, for example, had 78 reported overdoses in 2020, a 59% increase from 2019 levels.
Sarah Thorne of the South Portland Police Department Salvage Corps said the town had “become a hub for many homeless people.”
“It also brought many people from other areas to South Portland,” she said, elevating documented overdose cases in the area.
Originally, the church included Portland and South Portland in their request, but backed down in favor of the five municipalities for which they were allowed last month. They plan to identify public areas in Lewiston, Westbrook and other newly certified towns where vulnerable people can find them.
“We’re definitely not trying to step on anyone’s feet,” Brokos said. “There is a lot of need. We just want to make sure we’re in the places where no service is available or where services are inadequate.