STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The staggering number of opioid overdose deaths in this country is prompting people to take action even when they could be arrested for what they choose to do. In cities across the country, a group called the Church of Safe Injection is handing out clean supplies such as needles for using drugs. They say they have to step up because the public health system failed. Deborah Becker from our member station WBUR visited some volunteers in Maine.
DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: On a bitter cold afternoon in a park in front of the central bus stop in Bangor, about a half dozen people surround a folding table covered with handmade signs. They're offering free clean syringes and naloxone, also known as Narcan, the drug that reverses an opioid overdose.
DAVE CARVAGIO: We have some safe-use supplies, which would be cookers, straps, cottons.
BECKER: This man goes by Dave Carvagio, even though that's not his real name. He doesn't want to be identified because it's illegal in Maine to have more than 10 hypodermic syringes unless you're a certified needle exchange. Police cars sometimes circle the park, but no one's been arrested yet.
Oh, there's a police car right there. Police ever stop and talk to you or anything like that?
CARVAGIO: There's one officer who's come and talked to us a couple times.
BECKER: But this time, the police car keeps driving. Carvagio's a member of the group called the Church of Safe Injection. He says its mission is to help prevent diseases and overdose deaths.
CARVAGIO: I believe that there's a - not just, like, a moral duty to violate unjust laws but in this circumstance a spiritual duty.
BECKER: Bangor Police Sergeant Wade Betters says the group's focus should be on getting people into treatment.
WADE BETTERS: You know, if you're committing a crime in the state of Maine, yeah, you could be subject to arrest or ticketed. But in these particular cases, we generally use a lot of discretion because, again, the goal is the same - to save lives.
BECKER: At the next stop in Lewiston, police have warned volunteers there not to hand out syringes in a local park, reminding them it's illegal. But that hasn't really stopped them.
KANDICE CHILD: There's one, two - there's three salines.
BECKER: Kandice Child is in a car packed full of boxes of syringes and other drug-using equipment. Child arranged meeting spots to give people their supplies. They stop at a street corner where two young men wait as she rummages through the boxes.
CHILD: I'm going to give you 100. OK. What about alcohol wipes? You need any of those?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, actually.
BECKER: Child says she does this because she has a family member who's struggling. She also says there are only six certified needle exchange programs in Maine, none in Lewiston.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.
CHILD: You're welcome. God bless you.
BECKER: Child says she's willing to risk arrest because she believes she's doing what government health officials should be.
CHILD: Why wait? Should we all sit around and talk and point fingers, or should we all get off our [expletive] and go do something about it? This helps. It works. It saves lives because it reduces HIV and reduces hepatitis.
BECKER: We head to a third-floor apartment where three people are waiting to trade containers filled with used syringes for clean ones.
CHILD: OK, so I've got 60. Do you want some fentanyl test strips?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Please.
BECKER: A 36-year-old man who didn't want to be identified because he's using drugs is uneasy. He says he's glad to get the clean equipment. But he admits he's conflicted about whether these supplies make it easier for him to use drugs.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The reason I struggle is this - the inner conflict, you know? This is preventative maintenance. Yet, at the same time, it's enabling, you know?
BECKER: Even the founder of the Church of Safe Injection, 26-year-old Jesse Harvey, admits that he's struggled with the same questions. But after working in addiction recovery, Harvey says he's become frustrated by the deaths and the barriers to treatment. Harvey plans to register the church as a nonprofit and then argue for a religious exemption from drug laws. He says the Supreme Court's already ruled that a religious group is allowed to use an illegal psychedelic in its rituals. And Harvey's quick to say he's not advocating legalizing drugs.
JESSE HARVEY: No, not at all. 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 solutions.
BECKER: Harvey hopes his church, which he says has 18 branches in eight states, eventually will have a location that will include a site where people could inject drugs under supervision. For now, though, his congregants will continue risking arrest to hand out supplies. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker.
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