On March 9, Congress released its proposed final appropriations package for fiscal year 2022. If approved, it will drastically reduce money that lawmakers proposed last year for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help prevent HIV/AIDS and overdose, as the United States endures the worst overdose crisis in its history.
To rewind: In July 2021, the House of Representatives passed a Labor, Health and Human Services spending bill that proposed an historic $69.5 million to the CDC for its Infectious Diseases and Opioid Epidemic Program. The CDC doesn’t spend this money itself, but distributes it as grants to public or privately-run harm reduction programs throughout the country, such as syringe service programs. Would-be grantees have to apply through the CDC and show that the area they serve is at high risk of blood-borne disease.
It isn’t $69 million or $30 million—it’s a much smaller $18 million.
But in October 2021, Senate Democrats released their version of the bill, with a notable difference—it cut the proposed money to the CDC’s program to $30 million. Before either amount could be signed into law, both the House and Senate had to agree on a compromise, which they just now released. And it isn’t $69 million or $30 million—it’s a much smaller $18 million.
That means for all of fiscal year 2022, which ends on September 30, Congress would only spend $18 million on the CDC’s program that funds harm reduction. To put that number in context, from September 2020 to September 2021, over 104,000 people in the US died of overdose. As the harm reduction Twitter account Syringe Access noted, this spending, if confirmed, would equal just $173 available for every life lost in that period.
For comparison, Congress gave the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) about $2 billion in fiscal year 2021. Of other federal agencies heavily involved in the drug war, it gave about $13 billion to Customs and Border Protection, $8 billion to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and $14 billion to the Coast Guard. It gave the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) about $8 billion.
So even if, this late in the game, Congress does end up somewhat increasing the CDC’s harm reduction funding, it will still be a pittance compared to what the federal government spends on arresting, shooting and imprisoning people who use and sell drugs.
Advocates won’t be placated by the fact that $18 million would be more than the mere $13 million that Congress approved for fiscal year 2021, under the Trump administration.
But within weeks, their attention may switch, when President Biden announces his proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins October 1, 2022. Biden just directly called for increased harm reduction funding in his March 1 State of the Union address.
Will Congress continue to give harm reduction relative pennies while spending a fortune on the DEA and the rest?
Harm reduction organizations will be urging him and Congress to take that opportunity to drastically increase spending on lifesaving resources—from putting sterile syringes and the overdose-reversal drug naloxone into people’s hands, to hiring staff to help prevent overdose, HIV and hepatitis C in communities nationwide.
Grant Smith, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, told Filter that his organization, for one, is asking for increased funding in fiscal year 2023 for the CDC program, based on surveys and conversations with providers throughout the country.
Yet Biden’s State of the Union simultaneously called for increased funding for those drug-law enforcement agencies that already receive billions.
So will Congress continue to give harm reduction relative pennies while spending a fortune on the DEA and the rest? Much may hang on November’s midterm elections, with Democrats fearing losing control of the Senate, the House or both.
That an unprecedented crisis of mass deaths requires major investment in proven strategies might seem obvious. But harm reduction advocates still have their work cut out to drive the message home.
Photograph by Jeremy Buckingham via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.