Right-wing media outlets are attacking a Seattle, Washington, harm reduction organization for promoting safer alternatives to injecting drugs.
On February 22, Seattle-based conservative talk-radio host Jason Rantz published an article attacking the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), an organization serving unhoused people. He claimed, falsely, that their distribution of heroin-smoking pipes and booty-bumping kits—two strategies for reducing injection’s potential harm to the veins and skin, as well as its risk of disease transmission—was contributing to the historic overdose crisis and the mass deprivation of stable housing. That same day, Rantz was interviewed by Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson—who has repeated the racist and widely debunked myth that George Floyd, who died under the knee of a cop as the world watched, was killed by a fentanyl overdose.
In both the interview and in his original article, Rantz failed to cite a single piece of evidence to support the claim that harm reduction actually causes harm. Telling Carlson that harm reduction is “glorifying” drugs, he appeared unaware that syringe service program (SSP) utilization in his very own city is associated with reduction in drug use and entry into substance use disorder treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly verified those findings.
Rantz also failed to cite the overwhelming evidence that US-based harm reduction interventions like community naloxone training, substance use disorder medications and unsanctioned safe consumption sites save lives. He also ignored the evidence that the overdose crisis is driven by politically determined factors—including criminal justice system involvement; income and employment status; lack of social support; lack of health insurance; being unhoused; and education levels. Nor did he acknowledge that COVID-19 has exacerbated the crisis, making harm reduction services like SSP all the more necessary.
Rantz’s and Carlson’s positions are supported by bigotry, rather than by evidence. Carlson claimed that the distribution of harm reduction equipment will “degrade and destroy” people who use drugs. “It’s a diseased mind that’s responsible for this.”
Their conversation encapsulated an enduring American pastime: racist moralizing around drug use. The emphasis on drugs as “degrading” their consumers is a long-standing white supremacist trope, dating back to the 19th century and sexualized fear-mongering portraying Chinese men as using opium to prey on white women. Similarly, the “reefer madness” history of cannabis frames the unsuspecting smoker as a victim of a substance brought to the United States by dangerous Mexican migrants.
The Carlson segment emphasized what he perceives to be the ridiculous nature of administering drugs rectally—a route of administration associated with queer and trans people, communities frequently attacked and slandered by Fox News. He believes that making use of one’s God-given anus is a taboo topic. “The junkies can inject drugs rectally. For real,” he scoffed. His rhetoric is dehumanizing and unethical.
“I do want to stigmatize the act of shooting up or smoking heroin,” Rantz claimed. “We should be making sure everyone thinks [harm reduction and drug use] is unacceptable.”
The idea that the US is even anywhere close to having everyone think drug use is acceptable is risible. Rantz’s bigoted and ignorant opinions are the US standard, both politically and culturally.
“The addicts in DESC care have caused considerable harm to the community,” he wrote in his article. He cherry-picked local crime data on police responses to DESC’s main shelter, citing 253 reports of assault and 174 of theft from 2019—while conspicuously failing to mention that the same data included “[b]y far, the largest number of calls, 612,” to be to “the Seattle Fire Department in their response for medical assistance.”
“When you start to look at the numbers and group the different kinds of reasons for the calls, it tells a story largely of people in crisis,” DESC Executive Director Daniel Malone told KOMO News, the organization behind the reported data.
Rantz wrote that “you wouldn’t feel safe” if you were to “walk past [DESC] on any given day, at any given time, pre-pandemic.” Clearly, he’s not thinking of, let alone speaking with, DESC participants.
Whose lives matter to Rantz and Carlson?
Screenshot of Tucker Carlson interviewing Jason Rantz via Twitter