“Biden crime policy: Crack pipes for all. What could go wrong?” asked Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R).
In one of the most exasperating controversies of Biden’s presidency, elected Republicans and conservative talking heads whipped up a social media firestorm this week, accusing the White House of wanting to distribute the pipes nationwide.
“I know that sounds insane, I know that sounds too crazy to be true,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R). Others alleged the administration was celebrating Black History Month by prioritizing pipes for Black Americans.
This all stemmed from a grant program launched last year by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Biden’s multi-trillion dollar coronavirus rescue package, passed in March 2021, contained an historic-but-small $30 million in grant funding to public and private organizations to support harm reduction services, like the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone and sterile syringes. And “safe smoking kits/supplies” were listed as another eligible category.
But under right-wing pressure, Biden’s administration rapidly went on the defensive. His press secretary, HHS secretary and “drug czar” all went on the record on February 9, to clarify that “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”
“The safe smoking kit may contain alcohol swabs, lip balm, other materials to promote hygiene and reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV and hepatitis,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
It reads as a textbook example of political cowardice.
“A huge missed opportunity that will disproportionately be felt in Black and Indigenous communities.”
“Health policy must be driven by evidence, not by clickbait,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “We are in the midst of a serious public health crisis that claimed over 100,000 lives in the first year of the pandemic—with Black and Indigenous people being disproportionately hard hit.”
The Biden administration, she urged, “must stand firm against misinformation and continue the course to deploy all evidence-based solutions, including all forms of safer smoking supplies, to save lives now.”
Safer smoking supplies—including pipes—are a key harm reduction measure to help people use drugs more safely. Smoking or inhaling drugs is generally safer than injecting them, which can cause skin or vein infections, and may transmit diseases like HIV or hepatitis C if needles are shared. This mode of ingestion also helps people use smaller doses of drugs, making it less likely they will overdose.
And racial justice is central to the provision of these harm reduction supplies.
“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 that will disproportionately be felt in Black and Indigenous communities,” Frederique said, “especially as these communities have experienced some of the sharpest increases in overdose deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Despite nearly identical rates of drug use in Black and white communities, Black, Indigenous, and communities of color have long been disproportionately criminalized and treated with handcuffs and rap sheets—as we remember all too well from the 80s and 90s with the ‘crack epidemic’—instead of the public health tools they need to live healthier and more stable lives.”
“A condom, a syringe, a crack pipe is about protecting the health of people who use drugs. You value that or you don’t.”
Community-based harm reduction organizations in much of the US already distribute free safer smoking kits. These may include glass stems or pipes, rubber or plastic mouth pieces to prevent burns, and screens, wires or wooden sticks to push and hold the drugs in place. It’s far safer for everyone to have their own smoking device, because sharing the same pipe can spread diseases like tuberculosis or hepatitis C. (And obviously, COVID-19.)
While safe smoking supplies are technically illegal under federal law as “drug paraphernalia,” states like California allow providers to distribute them legally as a public health measure to prevent disease. What prevents safer smoking kits—or “free crack pipes”—reaching more people is lack of funding for them. And the politicians responsible.
“So we better be willing to get real and understand that Harm Reduction is love but it doesn’t have to make YOU comfortable,” said Tracie M. Gardner, senior vice president of policy advocacy at Legal Action Center. “A condom, a syringe, a crack pipe is about protecting the health of people who use drugs. You value that or you don’t.”
Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0
DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship. Dr. Sheila Vakharia is a member of the board of directors of The Influence Foundation.