WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers and conservative news outlets have accused the Biden administration of planning to give out pipes for smoking crack cocaine.
Their claims this week refer to a provision in an overdose prevention program announced in December. The program provides funding for “safe smoking kits,” but it makes no specific mention of glass pipes. In response to the outcry, Biden administration officials denied offering funding for such pipes.
Here’s a look at the facts.
What exactly is being funded?
The program, funded by the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package enacted last winter, will provide about $30 million in grants for harm reduction programs, which aim to reduce the personal and public health effects of drug use. There is no specific mention of crack pipes in the grant application materials.
Under the guidelines, grant recipients are required to create harm reduction action plans, distribute overdose medication, help curb the spread of infectious diseases and “purchase equipment and supplies to enhance harm reduction efforts.”
Safe smoking kits are listed as just one of the allowable purchases. The grants also provide funding for disease and drug testing kits, wound care supplies, condoms, syringes and vaccines. In a fact sheet about the program, the Department of Health and Human Services said it did not expect grant recipients to purchase all of the listed supplies.
The grant guidelines do not specify what the smoking kits should include. According to Harm Reduction International, a London-based nongovernmental organization, such kits can contain rubber mouthpieces, brass screens, lip balm, disinfectant wipes and glass stems — the “crack pipes” in question. The contents can vary based on the organization distributing the kit as well as state and local laws on the distribution of drug paraphernalia.
Moreover, the smoking kits are not specific to crack cocaine and can also be given to users of methamphetamine and opioids.
How has the administration responded?
Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, and Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a joint statement on Wednesday that their agencies were “focused on using our resources smartly to reduce harm and save lives.”
They added that “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was more emphatic. She told reporters that pipes “were never a part of the kit” and dismissed the suggestion that they would be included as inaccurate reporting. She was most likely referring to an article published on Monday by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet; citing an unnamed spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, the article said the kits would provide pipes.
The department did not respond when asked by The New York Times if glass pipes were ever allowable under the grant provisions.
Why fund safe smoking kits in the first place?
Advocates say the kits are an effective tool for outreach and health and safety education, and many expressed disappointment that the administration would not be providing funding for glass pipes.
“Backtracking on providing critical evidence-based resources that could greatly improve the health of people who consume drugs through smoking is a huge missed opportunity,” Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.
HIPS, a harm reduction organization in Washington that applied for a grant under the administration’s program, distributed smoking kits in the 1990s and 2000s. Replacing broken and unsafe glass pipes had the effect of reducing the sharing of equipment and transmittable disease, said the group’s executive director, Cyndee Clay.
“Being able to offer people clean, safe equipment for use, it’s a first step in helping change their behavior,” she said, adding that when HIPS stopped distributing the kits, “our engagement lessened because we didn’t have the right materials to start that conversation.”
Ms. Clay said of the grant program, “It’s unfortunate that there is all this controversy over what is essentially a very small part of what this initiative will be able to accomplish.”
Jim Duffy, the founder of Smoke Works, a harm reduction organization and pipe distributor in Boston, described the kits as an early intervention tool that could prevent people from injecting drugs and connect them to other resources.
“It stands in place of something riskier,” Mr. Duffy said, adding that “it opens up to entirely new communities H.I.V. testing, referral and health services.”
Mr. Duffy, whose organization did not apply for a grant, said he was disappointed that the Biden administration was “baited into a conversation that doesn’t need to be validated.”