LEWISTON — The City Council has denied an event permit for the Church of Safe Injection, which planned to host a “community appreciation” barbecue in Kennedy Park on July 15.

Wristbands fill a counter in 2022 at the Church of Safe Injection at 195 Main St. in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

In a 4-3 vote last week, a majority of the council said they didn’t support the organization’s mission and the potential that “paraphernalia” could be distributed during the event. The leader of the organization said Wednesday that they did not plan to distribute supplies.

Other councilors said the event was to be “educational and inspirational” and that the council should approve community events whether or not they agree with the organization’s message.

According to the group’s application, the event planned to feature “light acoustic guitars and singing,” as well as educational speakers and a barbecue.

Following the vote, the council unanimously approved a similar event for a group called “Christ 1 ministries.”

The Church of Safe Injection, which began with founder Jesse Harvey distributing clean needles and Narcan from his car in 2018, opened a physical office location at 195 Main St. in early 2022.


Under the leadership of its former executive director, Kari Morrissette, the organization became certified as a state Syringe Service Program through the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to operate in Westbrook, Lewiston, Rumford, Bethel and Dixfield. Both Harvey and Morrissette have since died.

During the council discussion, Councilor Stephanie Gelinas, who co-chaired the city’s substance use and recovery committee, said she initially had reservations about the Church of Safe Injection, but said that changed when she studied the group’s model of “harm reduction,” and its work in educational training.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, clean supplies made available to users have been proven to lower rates of infection contracted through shared use or unsanitary conditions.

“It is a pathway to recovery,” Gelinas said about COSI’s programs. “As someone who has been pushing a recovery-friendly community, this is something I’m going to wholeheartedly endorse.”

Gelinas’ comments came in response to Councilor Rick LaChapelle, who said, “I have, to my core, a problem with giving out safe injections and paraphernalia.”

“I know this will probably stir controversy, but I just don’t believe it’s something we as a city should be pushing forward. If they want to start passing stuff out on their own property I guess that’s their business, but on public property, we have a massive problem in our city, and I cannot support this organization or event.”


Zoe Brokos, executive director of the Church of Safe Injection, said in a statement Wednesday that the event was meant to be “a celebration in the park with music, food, and community member recognition awards” with no plans to distribute supplies.

“We do not, have not, and will not ever promote illegal activity — promoting illegal activity would be an incredible risk to our staff, licensure, program, and funding — risks we would never take,” she said.

Brokos said it was “evident” from listening to the councilors who voted to deny the permit that “there is considerable confusion about our organization and what we do.”

“Our organization is one of 15 syringe service programs in Maine who are recognized and supported by the Governor’s Office of Opioid Response,” she said. “We would like to extend an open invitation to any and all members of the City Council to schedule a time with us to visit our space, meet our staff, and see exactly what we do.”

She said because the group has had similar events approved in the past, no one from the organization attended last week’s meeting. She said going forward, a team member will be attending council meetings.

A city spokeswoman said Wednesday that the Church of Safe Injection was notified after the vote that the event cannot take place. The organization paid a $50 application fee. When asked for prior examples of when park events hosted by organizations were denied, the city spokeswoman said the city and/or clerk’s office does not track such statistics.


All city event applications are also contingent upon review from the police, fire and code enforcement departments. None of the departments listed concerns.

Mayor Carl Sheline said Wednesday that city staff told him anecdotally that they couldn’t remember a time when a similar event permit was denied by the council.

“Barbecues, acoustic guitar and keeping people alive shouldn’t be controversial,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the council used an ideological agenda to evaluate this event request. In doing so, they’ve introduced partisan politics into the application process which creates unpredictability for anyone trying to hold an event in Lewiston. The vote to deny this event reflects poorly on our city and the council.”

During last week’s meeting, Councilor Lee Clement said his “background and training says we don’t encourage violations of law.”

“If one looks into the history of this organization, one will find there have been problems in the past,” he said. Clement did not provide details on what the problems were. In 2019, Harvey was warned by Auburn police not to proceed with a needle exchange event, however, the organization is now a state-certified service.

Councilor Scott Harriman said other local organizations working to support those in recovery also planned to attend the July 15 event, including Recovery Connections of Maine, Tri-County Mental Health Services and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.

According to Brokos, the organization has planned an alternate event on July 15 at its Main Street office.

When the council unanimously approved an outdoor music event for “Christ 1 ministries,” Councilor Linda Scott said she didn’t understand why the council was “differentiating between the two” events.

“There’s all sorts of events we have every year that are entertainment for different groups of people in the diverse community that we live in,” she said. “I just have an issue that we’re picking one, but the other seems to be OK. I’d have more of an issue with something that has ministry in it. I wasn’t going to say that, but all of a sudden this seems to be something we’re all talking about. I think we should encourage it, whether we agree with the situation or not.”

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