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For The Church of Safe Injection, laws get in the way of ministry

As the Maine Legislature debates a bill that would establish safe needle use areas for addicts across Maine, one man who's made it his mission to help those addicts isn't waiting for lawmakers. Church of Safe Injection founder Jesse Harvey is challenging the law -- and law enforcement.

PORTLAND, Maine — Sterile syringes, alcohol wipes, and a disposal container. For Jesse Harvey, it's another day at church.

The Church of Safe Injection, that is. Harvey founded the organization last September to advocate for evidence-based harm reduction strategies for people who use drugs.

RELATED: Welcome to the Church Of Safe Injection

Tuesday’s service was held in the parking lot of First Universalist Church in Auburn.

"We’re going to do a needle exchange and naloxone distribution, taking used syringes and other equipment off the streets, providing one to one exchange with a sterile needle. It’s an evidence-based practice," Harvey said. 

But there’s a catch, according to state law and Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen.

"His way of going about it is wrong, and it is illegal. If he wants to become a safe needle exchange program, he needs to get certified through the CDC," said Moen. 

Auburn police stood watch in the parking lot to make sure nothing illegal took place.

Harvey maintains that his criminal record, among other factors, would lead the CDC to reject his request to provide an exchange.

For Police Chief Jason Moen -- no dice.

After being informed of the law, Harvey told Moen that he would be exchanging clean needles if indeed someone came to him and asked, regardless of the consequences. 

Church closed an hour after it opened Tuesday. No one showed up. No handcuffs came out either. 

Harvey says it’s unfortunate that his church and police are getting in each other’s way.

"We’re all on the same side. You know? It’s unfortunate that the war on drugs has pitted us against each other. We’re all trying to do the same thing, which is save lives and advance social justice and health equity," Harvey said. 

The Congregation of the Church of Safe Injection currently has over 20 branches across 9 states. Four active branches exist in Maine: Sanford, Waterville, Bangor, and Lewiston.