Lewiston police order mobile needle exchange program shut down

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LEWISTON, Maine (WMTW) - Lewiston police and the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have put a stop to a mobile needle exchange program saying it is currently operating illegally under state laws.

The group is called The Church of Safe Injection - but co-founder Jesse Harvey says it isn't necessarily a religion, just a group of people on a mission to help people with addiction.

"They don't need to be shamed," he says. "They need to be provided with legitimate health care. This is legitimate health care right here."

The program was founded only a few months ago. Harvey says he alone has helped over 70 people get access to supplies like clean needles, fentanyl test strips and the overdose-reversal medication naloxone. He says in cities like Lewiston, there is no state-regulated needle exchange or provider of free naloxone.

"This is just crazy. We have the medication, we know who needs it. Let's give it to them," Harvey says. However, after making weekly visits to the city and working out of the back of his car, often set up next to Kennedy Park, Harvey was asked to stop by Lewiston police and informed of the charges he could face.

According to state law, it is illegal to possess 11 or more hypodermic needles. The only exception is if that person is certified by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine CDC.

"State law is oriented in such a way that it does not give people the opportunity to recover," Harvey says. "State law is causing more harm than good much of the time."

He says although he will respect their request to stop distributing syringes, his visits will not end. Instead, his group will provide other supplies, like food and personal hygiene items.

Harvey hopes to eventually apply to become a licensed mobile needle exchange to help those in the most need.

"They are grateful. I'm grateful as well for, honestly, for the conversations that we have right here behind my vehicle. I learn a lot from the people we serve."