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The Crucifixion of Jesse Harvey

How the War on Drugs helped kill a leader of the fight to save addicts’ lives

by | Oct 2, 2020

Jesse Harvey. photo/courtesy Church of Safe Injection

“Some are calling him Narcan Jesus,” HuffPost reported last year, referencing the overdose antidote that brings opioid users back from the edge of death. And it’s true: Jesse Harvey did effect resurrections and save lives, leading thousands on the path to salvation. He even founded a church based on what he termed “radical compassion” for the lepers of our society: drug users, sex workers, criminals, the poor.

And, like that Nazarene preacher, Harvey was hunted, persecuted, prosecuted, and ultimately killed by the authorities because his gospel of unconditional empathy exposed the cruelty of the elites and threatened to upend the established order. Yet, in so doing, the authorities again created a martyr whose vision was more powerful than the man himself — a mission that’s already spread to other states and fundamentally changed the debate over how to cure the drug epidemic plaguing Maine.

Harvey’s advocacy on behalf of active drug users emerged from his own struggle with addiction, a battle he lost this past Labor Day, when he died of an overdose at his home on Douglas Street, in Portland. He was 28.

Mollie Kravitz, a longtime friend of Harvey’s, said she thinks he was born in Africa while his mother was working for the United Nations. “I know he lived in a few different African countries when he was little,” Kravitz said. (Harvey’s mother and brother declined to comment for this story.) Harvey also lived in New York prior to junior high, when his family moved to the small town of Holden, near Worcester, in central Massachusetts.

“His father wasn’t in the picture at all,” Kravitz recalled, and that may have contributed to the depression he suffered as a teen, she said. But Kravitz also called Harvey “one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” and added, “I’ve definitely heard of there being a link between being a super-intelligent person and a depression and hopelessness about the fate of the world. I think he could just see there was so much shit wrong with the world.”

Holden had little to offer this curiously cosmopolitan teenager, but it did have drugs. “I watched him crush up some pills in our psych class, in 11th or 12th grade, and snort it off his desk,” said Kravitz. She said Harvey enrolled in college after high school, but was kicked out due to behavior related to his addiction, which grew to include problems with alcohol, heroin and methamphetamine. He subsequently attended Clark’s University, in Worcester, where he was a member of the Model United Nations Team, and later studied for a graduate degree at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, in Portland.

By his own account, Harvey overdosed, was arrested multiple times, was jailed, and endured five involuntary commitments for his substance-use and mental-health problems before he straightened out his own life. “It’s a miracle that I’m sober right now,” Harvey told HuffPost reporter Erin Schumaker in late 2018. Referring to his stints in rehab, he added, “My recovery was not at all evidence-based. In fact, a lot of it was evidence-hostile.”

This experience shaped the approach he applied to Journey House Recovery, a nonprofit Harvey founded in late 2016 that now operates four “low barrier, peer-run” residential rehab facilities in Maine. That was a huge accomplishment for a recovering addict not yet 25 years old, and Harvey could have had a successful career and a comfortable life managing his network of treatment centers.

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But he knew the work he was doing wasn’t nearly enough. Harvey saw thousands of hard-drug users caught between a legal system that criminalizes their addiction and a hodgepodge of privately run treatment facilities incapable of helping them kick it. And he realized the public officials with the resources and responsibility to tackle Maine’s opioid crisis knew their efforts were insufficient, but were unwilling to do more to save lives.

In 2017, Maine recorded 417 overdose fatalities, mostly involving heroin and the much more powerful, synthetic opioid fentanyl. That number had been steadily climbing since 2011, when the state recorded 155 fatal ODs. This year — due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated substance abuse — Maine is on track to top 2017’s grim total, with as many as 470 drug-related fatalities.

The demand for medication-assisted treatment for opioid dependence (primarily methadone and buprenorphine, commonly known by the brand name Suboxone) vastly exceeds the ability of private providers to meet the need. For example, between the fall of 2016 and the summer of 2017, licensed practitioners in this state prescribed Suboxone to just over 6,200 patients. At the time, it was estimated that as many as 25,000 Mainers needed the treatment.

Meanwhile, law enforcement has been losing ground in the perpetual War on Drugs. In Maine, there’s actually no ground left to defend. In a recent press release, the Maine State Police said its troopers “have been working relentlessly to combat the overwhelming flow of illicit narcotics entering every city and town in Vacationland.” They reported last month that troopers had not seized a single bag of heroin this year, but were intercepting more fentanyl, which “unfortunately has taken the place of heroin in our beloved state.”

The ongoing failure of both treatment and law enforcement to prevent overdose deaths has given rise to a third approach, known as “harm reduction.” The harm-reduction model includes methods that have been used for decades, like needle exchanges and naloxone, better known by its brand name, Narcan. The availability and use of naloxone has exploded since the mid-1990s and saved tens of thousands of lives. But in order for it to work, a drug user must be in the company of someone attentive enough to notice they’ve OD’d, who can then promptly and properly administer the antidote.

That’s one of many reasons the harm-reduction model now also includes so-called “safe” or “supervised” injection sites. There are over 100 legal facilities of this type around the world — primarily in Europe, Canada and Australia — and a growing number of underground operations in the United States, where such sites are still illegal.

The clients of these facilities, who bring in their own drugs, can be monitored during and after injection and given naloxone, if necessary. The sites also typically offer drug counseling, a connection to treatment providers, and education on safe-injection practices. For many drug users, the most important thing they provide is a nonjudgmental space free of the otherwise ever-present threat of arrest and humiliation.

In 2018, Harvey started the Portland Overdose Prevention Society to expand access to harm-reduction services in Maine, including clean needles, fentanyl test kits, and condoms (dirty needles continue to be a major source of HIV/AIDS infection). At the time, there were only half a dozen needle-exchange programs in the state, and their limited hours and locations left most hard-drug users in the cold. Harvey’s group operated out of his red Honda hatchback, making home deliveries and parking after dark in places where active users were likely to find them; some clients would be notified of their schedule via Facebook.

Harvey and his small band of activists soon encountered resistance from state health authorities, who require needle-exchange programs to be licensed, and from cops enforcing Maine’s draconian law banning personal possession of more than 10 needles.

Rather than back down, Harvey doubled down and founded the Church of Safe Injection. In an op-ed published by the state’s largest paper on Oct. 18, 2018, he declaring what amounted to a holy war against the cops, the politicians, the bureaucrats and, for good measure, the leaders of every other Christian sect on the globe.

Not surprisingly, this earned him more than a few enemies, including some in the recovery community who worried he was going too far. It also earned him national media attention and the respect of political leaders like Sen. Angus King, who, following Harvey’s death, called him a “tireless advocate” whose loss is “a tragic and painful reminder of the work we must do to confront this awful epidemic, especially during the pandemic.”

That’s high praise from a sitting U.S. Senator for someone who, at the time of his demise, felt disgraced and hopeless, his life’s work destroyed, his sobriety shattered, and who was facing a lengthy prison sentence for multiple drug-related criminal charges.

L/A: It’s Happening Here!

“Why did I start the Church of Safe Injection in Portland?” Harvey asked rhetorically in his 2018 Portland Press Herald opinion piece. “Because, overwhelmingly, the churches I’ve reached out to aren’t interested in helping people who use drugs. They’ll give them lip service … and maybe a pair of socks, but they won’t really embrace them as Jesus would have done. They won’t provide them with what they often need most: sterile syringes, naloxone and nonjudgmental support.

“If this sounds blasphemous to you, it isn’t,” Harvey continued. “Pharisees have distorted God’s word. If syringes had been around in Jesus’ day, He would have supported safe injection. … All too often today, people who use drugs are offered only two choices: Get sober or die. Jesus would have rejected this shameful and lethal binary.”

By establishing his nonprofit as a church, Harvey believed its activities could be legally protected by the First Amendment. He openly expressed a desire to get arrested for this work so he’d have a basis to challenge its illegality in court. But even Harvey was unprepared for the heat his group got in the drug-plagued city of Lewiston.

One’s experience getting busted for dope in Maine can vary widely, based not only on your class or skin color, but where you happen to be at the time. Different police departments have taken more or less progressive positions on the opioid crisis.

“When we did distros in Portland, the cops would park across the street, but they never approached us,” said Kari Morrisette, who now serves as the Church of Safe Injection’s executive director. “They never mean-mugged us, they never tried to strong-arm us out. I don’t think it’s because they didn’t know what was going on, because I know they did. It’s more of a human decency, respect thing. They understand we are there to try and help, and they don’t mess with us.”

Jesse Harvey (left) doing God’s work from the hatchback of his car. photo/courtesy Church of Safe Injection

This summer, in the rural town of Rumford, Morrisette said she was stopped by a cop who asked why she had 10,000 needles in her trunk. “When I told him what I did and gave him my card from the Church, he said, ‘I get it, my daughter’s an addict. Thank you,’ and got in his car and drove away. That would not happen in Lewiston.”

That deindustrialized mill town, situated across the Androscoggin River from its tonier twin city, Auburn, “seemed to be the place with the least amount of resources, but also where the police dehumanize people that are actively using,” said Morrisette, “which is where Jesse felt his heart was pulled the most. He was wicked big about letting people know that just because you’re using doesn’t make you any less human. … It’s illegal for one human to try and kill another human, but it’s also illegal for one human to try and save another human. It’s ridiculous.”

“Yes, Bartlett Street in Lewiston is very bad, and cops patrol it heavily — I mean, I lived there,” Morrisette continued. “But it always seemed like [on] the days we were there, there were eight police cars driving in a one-block circle, just staring Jesse down. Just in a way to say, ‘We can take you, but we’re just going to scare you.’ But Jesse never backed down.”

“Towards the end, Lewiston got completely taken from us,” said Morrisette. “It got to the point where clients were calling us, saying, ‘Hey, the police are posted up here waiting for you, and they say they’re not giving you a summons, they’re taking you to jail.’ And they were waiting for us to show up. … We even had people, our clients, telling us police were offering money rewards to let them know what [our] schedule is.”

Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did his boss, Mayor Kristen Cloutier. But thanks to internal communications released as part of the massive BlueLeaks data breach this summer, we have some insight into the Lewiston PD’s harassment of Harvey during the weeks prior to his death.

“Jesse Harvey has been distributing hypodermic needles throughout Lewiston’s downtown,” states a bulletin from June of this year. Harvey is “NOT affiliated with a needle exchange organization, and therefore, it is not legal for Harvey to be handing needles out.”

The Lewiston PD’s report was distributed to police departments across the state by the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC), part of a nationwide network of so-called Fusion Centers established after 9/11 by the Department of Homeland Security, originally to uncover terrorist plots. The report thus amounted to a statewide All Points Bulletin alerting cops to detain and interrogate Harvey should he even show his face in public, using travel restrictions implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 as a pretext to threaten him with legal action. If cops made contact with Harvey, they were advised to “remind him of the Governor’s stay at home order and summons him (if he is in possession of needles) for illegal possession of hypodermic needles,” the bulletin read.

A year before the Lewiston cops issued their bulletin, Harvey had already relapsed and entered a spiral that eventually ended his life. Morrisette believes the relentless police surveillance and harassment helped push Harvey over the edge.

Things Fall Apart

It seems the police in Portland were also keeping a close eye on Harvey. In July of last year, a Portland cop happened to witness what appears to have been a minor fender-bender caused when Harvey backed his car into another vehicle. According to local TV station WGME, an affidavit claimed Harvey “failed sobriety tests” at the scene, and a “drug recognition expert determined he was under the influence of alcohol and depressants.” Harvey was charged with criminal OUI and unlawful possession of scheduled drugs.

The next day, Harvey, accompanied by his mother, went to Maine Medical Center, in Portland, to start treatment. According to the affidavit obtained by WGME, “Harvey’s mother asked hospital staff to check on her son because she believed he was in the waiting room bathroom using drugs.”

According to a nurse who, accompanied by a security guard, unlocked the bathroom door and confronted Harvey, he was “standing over the sink, injecting a clear liquid into his arm,” the TV report states. “She said Harvey grabbed a second needle, uncapped it, and sprayed her in the face with a clear liquid that he later told her was methamphetamine.” (It’s unclear whether the contents of the second syringe were ever collected or tested, and Harvey’s friends say the state’s theory of a meth-squirt assault is preposterous.)

This incident resulted in several additional charges, including assault, another charge of unlawful possession, a charge for violating the conditions of release imposed after the accident the previous day, and, incredibly, a charge of drug trafficking — as if the amount of meth Harvey had at the time was proof that he planned to sell it from his hospital bed.

The local media, which had presented Harvey as an unconventional hero for his hard work and activism in the past, “did a really good job of vilifying him” after these run-ins with the law, said Kravitz. No one was hurt, and no significant property damage resulted from Harvey’s meltdowns, but the state brought the full weight of its prosecutorial authority down upon his head like a hammer.

“The attorney general was trying to get the toughest charges against Jesse,” said Kravitz, a law student at the University of Maine. “Jesse spent over $15,000 on a lawyer. He was just really hopeless and he didn’t see a future for himself anymore. Lots of people in the recovery community turned their backs on him, and that was his life’s work. He didn’t see a job outside advocacy, because [as a felon] what job could he get?”

Harvey’s friends say that, in the days before he died, Jesse was resigned to plead guilty to the charges, against his lawyer’s advice, and serve his time in prison. The vocation that had finally given his life purpose and meaning — the vital things he was missing as a teenager who slid into addiction and depression — had effectively been taken from him by the state.

Revelations 

“No one had to tell Jesse Harvey that the War in Drugs was a losing cause,” the Portland Press Herald wrote in an editorial after his death. “He could see that the tools of the criminal justice system could not reverse an epidemic that was killing on average one Mainer every day.”

“Harvey’s death was a loss not just to Maine’s recovery community,” the paper continued. “The whole state will miss his leadership and fierce advocacy. If the autopsy confirms that he died of an overdose, the way he died should not overshadow the work that he started.”

It hasn’t.

In 2018, the election of Democrat Janet Mills to be Maine’s next governor promised to restore some sanity to the state’s drug policy. Her predecessor, Tea Party Republican Paul LePage, infamously blamed Maine’s drug crisis on Black men from out of state, resisted efforts to increase access to Narcan, and even tried, unsuccessfully, to force drug users to reimburse the state for the cost of giving them the life-saving antidote.

In a press release issued shortly after she took office, Mills wrote, “History will note that we have lost an entire generation of people to the opioid epidemic and that we have simply failed to address this preventable disease. … In the past five years, at least 1,630 people in Maine have died from drug overdose — more than the population of Chesterville, Eastport or North Berwick.”

“These people are not ‘junkies,’” Mills continued. “They are our neighbors, coworkers, family members, schoolmates. … They are athletes and businesspeople, fishermen, cooks and clerks. Mothers and fathers. People we see everyday. … It is time to mobilize state government to stem the tide of this deadly epidemic.”

Yet Mills, a former prosecutor, has not made it easier for grassroots groups like the Church of Safe Injection to distribute life-saving supplies to people not being served by existing harm-reduction programs. She’s not a backer of decriminalization or safe injection sites.

“The Mills Administration has been very supportive of the recovery community, which is wonderful. It is different than supporting people who are actively using drugs, though,” said Whitney Parrish, an ally of Harvey’s who works for Health Equity Alliance, a non-profit agency in Maine that helps drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS.

“While the administration has begun working with harm reduction groups to facilitate and ease access to naloxone and sterile syringes and supplies,” Parrish continued, “there are many evidence-based, practical recommendations we could be exploring: safe consumption sites, allowing physicians to prescribe a safe supply of regulated drugs, decriminalizing substances so people aren’t arrested and imprisoned just for meeting a basic need and surviving the day. Decriminalizing hypodermic apparatuses so people aren’t charged for keeping a mere 11 syringes on their person. We have a lot of work to do, and we hope the administration will do that work with us.”

In January of last year, Mills appointed Gordon Smith, a longtime lobbyist for the Maine Medical Association, to be the state’s first Director of Opioid Response. Smith declined to answer interview questions, but provided Mainer with a statement in which he praised Harvey’s work and declared Maine “a strong supporter of legal, appropriate harm reduction efforts, which include the promotion of naloxone and safe syringe exchanges, as permitted by state regulations.”

Smith noted that Maine now has 12 syringe exchanges, “with the potential for others to start operating in the coming months.” In addition, “we have distributed 35,000 doses of Narcan to date [and] increased access to medication-assisted treatment.”

Advocates like Parrish know that “access to” treatment is not the same as treatment. “There are so many barriers to treatment: stigma; lack of affordable, quality health care … abstinence requirements that include not only the substance that may have led a person to treatment, but also things like cannabis. The list is long,” she said. “There are so many cracks through which people fall.”

At the local level, there’s more movement toward practical solutions like safe injection sites. City officials in Portland were dismissive of the idea when Harvey first proposed it a couple years ago. Now it’s back on the table.

“I believe Portland would benefit from an overdose prevention site,” said City Councilor Belinda Ray, whose district includes downtown Portland. She went on to list the benefits of these facilities using talking points straight out of Harvey’s playbook: “Overdose prevention sites don’t just save lives, they also help connect people to essential services, get folks into recovery, reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis-C, and reduce the number of needles people find on the ground in parks and play spaces, and on streets, trails, and sidewalks.”

Ray chairs the Council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, which is holding a workshop session on Oct. 13 to discuss legal issues related to safe injection sites, and a public hearing on the topic is scheduled for Nov. 10. Both meetings can be accessed via Zoom.

Ray predicted that neighborhood opposition to safe injection sites could be a major barrier, but the primary obstacle to their establishment is federal law. The Trump administration has signaled that it intends to crush any attempts to set them up in other cities. “Of course, that barrier could go away if we elect a new president on November 3rd,” Ray said, “presuming that Joe Biden’s [Department of Justice] would receive direction to focus on serious crimes and injustices and not social services.”

The Church of Safe Injection continues to expand its reach. It now has five branches in five states providing sterile supplies and advocating for supervised injection facilities. Morrisette said the nonprofit has enough grant money to continue for another year, and she’s confident that even without Harvey, who was a wiz at securing funding, the Church will find more grant support before that money runs out.

“A lot of people have laid out plans, but our organization was built as a radical organization and it will continue to be a radical organization,” Morrisette said. “The only plans or priorities we have right now is to get the most number of dirty needles off the street as we can, lower the number of overdoses, lower the number of endocarditis cases” — a heart problem associated with intravenous drug use — “and lower the number of HIV cases.”

If the opioid crisis is ever to be fully solved, the deeper societal problems that drive addiction will need to be addressed.

“Addiction comes from childhood trauma, mental disease, homelessness,” said Morrisette, who is herself a recovering heroin addict and human-trafficking survivor. “And [those drug users] don’t need to be saved. They just need to know someone cares that they are using safely. And if, if they are ever ready to get out of that life, they need to know someone is there to help them. You don’t need to put someone back together if they’re not broken.”

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