Students for Sensible Drug Policy respond to opioid crisis

By Alyson Peabody, News Editor

USM students are organizing a Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter to help end the war on drugs. The group’s goal is to inform the public about harm reduction and treatment while offering recovery support and primary prevention.

“The SSDP neither condemn nor condone drug use. They look to legalize it,” said Jesse Harvey, a candidate for Master’s in Policy, Planning and Management. Harvey is the group’s co-founder alongside Louisa Munk, the SSDP president and candidate for Master’s in Public Health. The USM chapter of nineteen members is a part of a 300 campus wide presence in 32 countries. SSDP has been working toward ending the war on drugs since 1997.

Harvey said that he has been frustrated by the notion that “Somebody else will initiate the safe injection and harm reduction conversations in this state.” As a person in recovery, he wanted to bring that conversation to his community.

Harvey is the founder of the Church of Safe Injection, Portland Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS), Survivors Union of Portland, and Journey House Recovery.

“I have been exposed personally to the horrendous continuum of care that a person with substance use dependency is expected to go through,” said Harvey.

Harvey founded Portland’s Church of Safe Injection due to a lack of interest from established churches in the area. “They won’t provide them with what they often need most: sterile syringes, naloxone and nonjudgmental support,” he said.

Portland Rep. Michael Sylvester proposed the L.D. 949 bill, according to Portland Press Herald. This bill would allow the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to authorize two safe-injection sites to supply sterile needles, the overdose antidote naloxone, and other health services to individuals that came to self-administer drugs.

“L.D. 949 would provide overdose prevention sites in some of the highest overdose areas,” Harvey said.

Heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids are killing more than 40,000 Americans annually, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. In recent years, Maine has averaged more than one overdose death per day with no signs of change.

According to an interview Harvey had with National Public Radio (NPR), there are 18 chapters of the Church of Safe Injection in eight states that are all privately funded by anonymous donations. Each church functions independently and abides by three rules:

  1. Welcome people of all faiths
  2. Serve all marginalized people
  3. Support harm reduction.

“Only four weeks after our church opened its doors, three sister churches sprouted in Bangor, Lewiston and Augusta,” he said. The Church of Safe Injection is working with a Columbia law professor to apply for an exemption from federal drug statutes under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“We’re not saying it’s our religious belief to use heroin,” Harvey said. “We’re saying that it’s our sincerely held religious belief that people who use drugs don’t deserve to die when there are decades of proven, cost-efficient, feasible, compassionate solutions that can be easily implemented.”

Harvey’s Journey House Recovery project began when he signed a lease on an apartment in December 2016. He leased the space to six men that became Journey House Limited Liability Company (LLC) in mid 2017. The nonprofit grew to four houses by 2018 and established itself as Journey House Recovery.

“We are regarded as one of the state of Maine’s premier providers recovery-oriented housing because we are simultaneously low-cost, low barrier, peer-run and evidence-based,” Harvey said.

A harm reduction panel was held at the beginning of April on the Portland USM campus. The panel was made up of both Munk and Harvey representing the Church of Safe Injection and Portland SSDP, Glenn Simpson representing Portland OPS and Dignity for Opiate Users, Brittney La Shier representing Portland OPS and Person in Recovery, representative from Maine Access Points and Stephen Andrew representing Dignity for Opiate Users. Panelists discussed Harm Reduction Strategies, Overdose Prevention Sites, Needle Exchange and Narcan Distribution, Experiences of Recovery and Stigmatizing Language. The event was recorded by an anonymous news outlet, but was not released. “The first time ever that we had a mock OPS in Maine,” Harvey said. “That is propagandist whitewashing that contributes to the death toll.”

Harvey defines evidence based as accepting people with opioid use disorder (OUD) that are taking buprenorphine and methadone. He says that all-cause mortality drops 50% for people with OUD when they start taking that medication.

“When recovery houses turn applicants away because they are prescribed medication by their doctor … they are contributing to the staggering death toll by preserving the recovery housing industry norm that residents should be subjected to twice the risk of dying through forced abstinence when they are made to choose between treatment and housing,” he said.

Journey House Recovery has opened Sanford’s first recovery house, York County’s first Women’s Recovery House, as well as Androscoggin county’s first and only Recovery House.

“Sadly we have had to close the Auburn Women’s House,” Harvey said, “but we have opened the state’s only LGBTQ+ and non-binary friendly recovery house.”

Three of the four houses are MARR-certified (minimum acceptable rate of return) with the fourth due to undergo inspection. Initially, the houses were a “private LLC business that acted as a charity with over 50% of our residents paying nothing to move in,” according to Harvey.

Harvey said that finances shouldn’t be a barrier to people on the road to recovery. If necessary, residents would be put on partial, full, or payment plan scholarships.

Maine is not the only state debating the legalization of safe injection sites. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Delaware are debating bills to legalize safe injection sites, according to Miller.

According to Miller, federal officials have taken a strong stance against these facilities. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in February to stop a Philadelphia nonprofit, Safehouse from opening the nation’s first legal, safe injection site.

William McSwain, the U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania’s eastern district, said “normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl and ignoring the law is not the answer to solving the opioid epidemic.”

Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney from the Maine Department of Public Safety submitted written testimony against the proposal for the two safe injection sites in Maine. “Active drug use and drug-related crime adversely impact families, victims and the community,” Mckinney said. “Drug use site programs convey an implicit acceptance and normalization of serious, harmful drug use and exacerbate an already alarming drug use problem.”

There are nearly 100 safe injection sites operating in Europe, Canada, and Australia, according to NPR.

“With the U.S. in the midst of an opioid epidemic causing morbidity and mortality at unprecedented levels, policymakers and public health practitioners are in need of innovative solutions,” wrote Dr. Alex H. Kral and Dr. Peter Davidson. Kral has a Phd in Behavioral and Urban Health Program from RTI International in San Francisco, California. Davidson has a Phd in harm reduction from the University of San Diego, California. The two published their research about an underground supervised injection site in the United States in 2017. Kral and Davidson determined that improving community health and safety could save a city $3.5 million a year.

A 2014 review of 75 studies determined that these sites promoted safer injection conditions, reduced overdoses and increased access to health services. There is not enough evidence to determine if there have been changes in crime or drug use, but the studies were associated with less recreational drug use outside of the designated injection sites. An additional study by Leo Beletsky, Corey S. Davis, Evan Anderson, and Scott Burris confirmed these findings.

According to Miller, Governor Janet Mills’ spokeswoman, Lindsay Crete, called safe injection sites “potential life-saving option” but one that faces “significant legal hurdles.” She said that Gov. Mills will address the opiate crisis by “making treatment options available at every venue, including medication-assisted treatment and recovery coaches on call at every clinic, every law enforcement agency and every emergency room” across the state.

Currently, a plan is in the works to stock the overdose antidote naloxone in all public high schools and middle schools in Maine, according to Portland Press Herald.

This article was updated on 4/23.

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