AUBURN — The Auburn Police Department warned the founder of a mobile needle exchange program Tuesday afternoon he would be charged with a misdemeanor if he distributed sterile needles during a needle exchange and Narcan distribution event at First Universalist Church on Pleasant Street.

But the arrest didn’t happen — likely because police presence deterred anyone from showing up.

The event, scheduled from 4 to 5 p.m., was organized by the Church of Safe Injection, a program founded in September 2018 by Jesse Harvey that aims to reduce diseases caused by sharing needles and provide drug users with sterile syringes and Narcan until they are able to get into a recovery program.

Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen greets Jesse Harvey on Tuesday afternoon outside First Universalist Church of Auburn, where Harvey planned to exchange dirty needles for clean ones despite a warning from police that what he was doing was illegal. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

Harvey calls it a means of “harm reduction,” rather than forcing drug users to either get sober or succumb to addiction.

On March 26, Lt. Anthony Harrington Jr. of the Auburn Police Department sent an email to Harvey asking if the church had received the proper certification for the needle exchange event.

Harvey told Harrington the church had no official certification, but was “called on by a higher authority to do the work that we do.”

He told Harrington the church would host the needle exchange and “distribute sterile supplies, including fentanyl testing strips and naloxone,” and that they were “legally protected as secondary exchange.”

Harrington said “state law establishes that a person is guilty of furnishing hypodermic apparatuses except when authorized by a program that is ‘certified’ by Maine Health and Human Services or the Maine CDC,” and that the police would “enforce these laws” by arresting Harvey if he distributed the syringes.

Harvey and several volunteers were at the church’s parking lot just before 4 p.m., where a table stocked with Narcan, condoms, alcohol wipes, fentanyl testing strips, snacks and voter registration cards sat in front of his red Honda Fit.

Before the event began, Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen reiterated to Harvey if he exchanged needles with anyone, he would be subject to a criminal charge.

“If anyone shows up, I intend to exchange syringes with them,” Harvey told Moen.

“Then you will face criminal charges,” Moen said.

Moen asked Harvey if he had any syringes in his vehicle.

“I’d like to plead (the Fifth Amendment),” Harvey replied.

“Fair enough,” Moen said.

Jesse Harvey waits Tuesday afternoon in the parking lot of First Universalist Church of Auburn for others to show up to exchange dirty needles for clean ones. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

Harvey said he did not expect anyone to show up to the event because police were there, but did not blame officers.

“It’s not their fault,” Harvey said. “I know that they’re doing their jobs. It’s the legislature’s fault.

“They’re setting (drug users) up to go to jail, to die, to live horrible lives, instead of meeting them where they’re at and helping them. Syringes should not be criminalized.”

Harvey founded the church in 2018 after becoming disheartened with the small number of needle exchange programs in Maine.

Maine’s needle exchange programs operate in Portland, Bangor, Ellsworth, Machias and Augusta, but Harvey said many of Maine’s major population centers, including Lewiston and towns in York County, do not have fixed locations.

Harvey said Tuesday his criminal record and lack of “fixed space” for the needle exchange program have made him ineligible to fill out the application to become a certified needle exchange location.

He has cards designating him a secondary exchange recipient for needle exchange programs in Portland and Bangor, though he said the Maine CDC does not recognize those cards as sufficient to meet state law.

“It’s a crazy system we live in,” Harvey added. “It’s rigged to kill drug users.”

A container of discarded needles that Jesse Harvey brought in case someone wanted to make an exchange. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

Jodi Hayashida, the minster of First Universalist Church, said she gave permission for Harvey to use the church’s parking lot to host the event and lauded him for “staying committed to saving lives.”

“For decades, we’ve been peddled this false narrative that rehabilitative punishment is the way to manage the drug crisis,” Hayashida said.

“At this point, science has proven that it is ineffective.”

She said harm-reduction programs like the one Harvey runs “actually work.”

“We as a state and a country have not caught up with reality,” Hayashida said. “The policies and programs in place right now are costing lives.

“As a member of the clergy and a person of faith, I find this profoundly immoral. We need people like Jesse doing this work to stay strong. I hope he refuses to be cowed by stigma and speak the truth until policies and programs catch up.”

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Joe Lawlor of the Portland Press Herald contributed to this report.


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