EDITORIAL: With new Maine law, harm reduction comes first

·3 min read

Oct. 20—Jesse Harvey didn't have any patience for elected officials, the state bureaucracy or anyone else who didn't put saving lives absolutely first.

A year after his own death — from a drug overdose, one of so many in the last 12 months — there is hope that his message is being heard.

On Monday, a new state law took effect decriminalizing the possession of hypodermic needles, ending a prohibition that helped spread hepatitis B and HIV and made overdose deaths more likely.

And earlier this month, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention cleared the organization Harvey founded, the Church of Safe Injection, to operate syringe service programs in five Maine communities, including the first of its kind in Oxford County.

The announcement signals a mend in the relationship between state officials and the group, which began under the charismatic and uncompromising Harvey as an unauthorized mobile needle exchange.

Together with the new law, it also shows that harm reduction — the idea that we should try to minimize the damage and dangers caused by drug use rather than punishing or stigmatizing the person who is using — is finally getting the support it deserves.

Finally, at least in some situations, saving lives is being put first.

That's the right thing to do, as Harvey felt deep in his bones. With the needle exchange, he worked out of a car and went where he was needed to reach people often pushed to the margins of society. When state rules got in the way, he ignored them, angering officials.

Harvey's stance helped endear his organization to the people it was set up to help — people who are more likely go to a peer than seek official help, and who may be wary of authority. But it was also restricting the scope of the group's work.

After Harvey died last September at the age of 28, the organization mourned. Then they surveyed the scene around them and decided they could do more good as part of the system. Working with the Maine CDC and Gov. Mills' opioid response office, they sought approval for certified needle services in places where they knew help was needed.

They'll start their work just as the new law takes effect. By allowing possession of more than 10 needles, it will help people who use drugs get clean syringes, reducing the likelihood of hepatitis B, HIV or an infection.

It will also give groups like the Church of Safe Injection more opportunities to reach people who could use services or support, or just the kind face of someone who isn't judging them.

The law also signals that harm reduction is gaining mainstream approval, slowly replacing policies that marginalize, condemn and punish people who are, first and foremost, having a health crisis.

Needle exchanges and other resources are being expanded. Naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication, is now widely available, thanks not only to nonprofit advocate groups but also the advocacy of Gov. Mills.

We need to do more of it, to reach all corners of the state. We should also consider safe injection sites; though people are still uncomfortable with the idea, it's a better alternative than leaving someone to die alone after taking drugs.

But the fact is, harm reduction works. When people are given the tools to survive drug use fueled by addiction, it's more likely they'll live to get treatment and recover.

It's the best tool we have for saving lives. Amid another record year for overdose deaths, we have to make harm reduction a priority.

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