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Fox News' 'Biden crack pipe' freakout is going to kill people

The Department of Health and Human Services' harm-reduction program for risky substance use will save lives — if conservatives let it.

For the past week, conservative media has been yelling about the Biden administration supposedly spending $30 million on “crack pipes” for poor Black neighborhoods. The hysteria is a real throwback to the 1990s and that era’s barely coded racist panic about people who use crack, given the drug’s prevalence in and strong association with Black communities — and it does nothing to help the millions of people addicted to narcotics.

At the center of the uproar is a Department of Health and Human Services grant that funds harm-reduction programs. A departure from policies that stigmatize addiction and force people who use drugs into hiding, these programs provide community-based support that includes having staff available to prevent overdoses, offering counseling on addiction and swapping out syringes to prevent the spread of HIV.

Nowhere in the grant are pipes mentioned — but from the blog’s report, it was off to the race-baiting.

Among the items that grantees are able to purchase are infectious disease testing kits, Food and Drug Administration-approved overdose reversal medication, strips to test drugs possibly tainted with fentanyl and “safe smoking kits/supplies.” The last of those is what The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative blog, pounced on Monday to claim that the federal government is “set to fund the distribution of crack pipes to drug addicts as part of its plan to advance ‘racial equity.’”

Nowhere in the grant are pipes mentioned — but from the blog’s report, it was off to the race-baiting. “Joe Biden's latest idea is to pay Black people to smoke more crack,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said Tuesday. Fox News’ website also leaned into the racial angle in its reporting, noting that the grant request document from HHS referenced an executive order focused on advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities.

Republican senators, sensing an opening to attack the White House as weak on crime, have joined the pile-on. “The Biden administration is going to be sending crack pipes and meth pipes, targeting minority communities,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a video. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., framed the program as funding “crack pipes for addicts.” And Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., threatened to risk a government shutdown next month if HHS doesn’t “assure the American people that U.S. taxpayer dollars will not be used to distribute drug paraphernalia.”

In response to the backlash, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on Wednesday said in a statement that "no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits." I get why the administration felt the need to say that — but, frankly, it’s a mistake and one that lets racist fear-mongering win out over providing health care to people in need.

The kits that we’re talking about can include “glass stems, rubber mouthpieces, brass screens, lip balm and disinfectant wipes,” according to the group Harm Reduction International. The rest of those components minus the pipes will apparently still be eligible for funding through HHS’ grant. If you’re wondering why the administration would include safer smoking kits as a proper use of government money in the first place, here’s how the Drug Policy Alliance explains it:

Safer smoking supplies, primarily distributed by harm reduction programs, is an evidence-based practice that helps people who inject drugs to switch to smoking, which is a less risky mode of consumption. One of the benefits of drug use via inhalation rather than injection includes ingestion of lower doses of the drug, which can reduce risk of overdose. Another benefit is the reduction of injection-related harms and risks such as infection and blood-borne disease transmission.

The use of safer smoking supplies also reduces the risk of broken pipes cutting people's mouths, which enables the spread of diseases like hepatitis C. Safer supplies also reduce the potential for toxic fumes from using homemade pipes. In eliminating the pipes from eligibility for funding, the administration is choosing the more expensive option of waiting until a health crisis sends people to emergency rooms.

The outsize focus on these safer smoking kits also threatens to completely overshadow the rest of the harm-reduction efforts HHS’ funding is meant to support. As New York City officials, including health officials and district attorneys, wrote in a BuzzFeed News opinion essay last year, these programs are well tested and highly effective:

Thirty years of research conducted across 100 sites on three continents has demonstrated the efficacy of overdose prevention centers. There has never been a single overdose death at any site. Participants are provided with basic human needs day after day: a smile, a sandwich, or a shower. Over time, trust is built between participants and clinical staff, which leads to participants beginning substance use disorder treatment and referrals to healthcare and other social services.

In addition, research shows overdose prevention centers reduce public drug use, syringe litter, and drug-related crime in surrounding neighborhoods. They can also function as safe havens for women who use drugs, reducing violence against women associated with street-based substance use.

Last year, New York City opened America’s first — and so far, only — officially sanctioned supervised consumption centers. Between their opening, Nov. 30, and Jan. 23, the sites averted 114 drug overdoses. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States between April 2020 and April 2021. But it’s 100 lives that could have been cut short without intervention.

Spinning a program meant to save lives into a program solely devoted to making crack more accessible in Black neighborhoods doesn’t happen by accident. It can only happen purposefully. It’s an echo of the mandatory minimums that for years made sure possession of crack cocaine drew harsher sentences than powder cocaine. It’s a remnant of the failed “tough on crime” approach to drug policy that has left hundreds of thousands incarcerated over the years and many, many more dead.

It also does nothing to help address the opioid crisis that Republicans accuse President Joe Biden of ignoring. There are millions of Americans out there who need help with their substance use disorder, enough that the grant HHS is distributing should be at least 10 times as large as it is. The attempts we’ve seen this week to prevent such people from getting that help are not just racist, they’re also callous, cruel and counterproductive.