The Department of Health and Human Services launched a $30 million grant program in December to help “address the nation’s substance use and overdose epidemic” by reducing the dangers related to drug use. The program doesn’t provide funding for crack pipes, contrary to partisan claims fueled by a flawed assumption.
The Harm Reduction Grant Program will allow the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, to distribute $10 million per year over the next three years to support “community-based overdose prevention programs, syringe services programs, and other harm reduction services,” using what HHS calls “evidence-based practices.”
On Feb. 7, the Washington Free Beacon published an article and headline claiming, “Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity.’” The article reported that the “kits will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and ‘any illicit substance,’” attributing that information to an HHS spokesperson.
But the Free Beacon inconsistently reported further down in the same article, “An HHS spokesman declined to specify what is included in the smoking kits. Similar distribution efforts provide mouthpieces to prevent glass cuts, rubber bands to prevent burns, and filters to minimize the risk of disease.”
The executive editor of the Free Beacon later acknowledged that the HHS spokesperson never said that pipes would be included in the kits, but the paper made that assumption based on “what smoking kits are.”
By that time, however, the article had sparked a firestorm of partisan accusations, media corrections and objections from the Black community.
The day the article was published, the Republican National Committee’s Rapid Response Team — formed with the goal of quickly responding to controversial issues on social media to “shape the narrative” — issued a press release and shared a tweet that said the Biden administration is “sending crack pipes to drug addicts in the name of ‘equity.’”
Republican senators and representatives — including Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado — followed suit, condemning the administration in press releases, press conferences and on social media.
Rubio and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia also teamed up to announce that they had introduced the Preventing Illicit Paraphernalia for Exchange Systems Act, or PIPES Act, aiming to block federal funding for the distribution of crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia.
Both the White House and HHS have said that crack pipes will not be provided in safe smoking kits under the grant program.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, released a statement on Feb. 9 that said, “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”
The HHS statement said that the administration is “prioritizing the use of proven harm reduction strategies like providing naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and clean syringes, as well as taking decisive actions to go after violent criminals who are trafficking illicit drugs like fentanyl across our borders and into our communities.”
At a Feb. 9 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said crack pipes “were never a part of the kit; it was inaccurate reporting.” She said that the Biden administration does not “support federal funding, indirect or direct, for pipes.”
Psaki also said a safe smoking kit could contain alcohol swabs, lip balm, and materials to promote hygiene and reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
Some have accused the Biden administration of reversing course on placing pipes in the safe smoking kits, but we could find no evidence of that.
Media Misassumptions and Correction
A few days after the Free Beacon article was published, the Washington Post Fact Checker ran an article with the headline “Viral article that unleashed ‘crack pipe’ firestorm relied on assumptions,” detailing the exchanges between the Free Beacon reporter and the HHS spokesperson.
The reporter never specifically asked the spokesperson if pipes would be included in safe smoking kits, and the spokesperson never said crack pipes would be included in the kits, the Post reported.
Instead, the reporter made the assumption that pipes would be included in the kits after reviewing a document from 2019 by Harm Reduction International — a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing the negative impacts of drug use and drug policy. The document detailed items included in some smoking kits, such as, “glass stems, rubber mouthpieces, brass screens, lip balm and disinfectant wipes.” (“Crack is smoked in a small glass pipe,” as explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.)
“You are correct that the spokesman did not specifically say pipes in response to our questions, one of which was what is in the smoking kits,” Brent Scher, executive editor at the Free Beacon, said in an email to the Washington Post. “They said they would not specify what is in the kits. Our follow up was to verify that the kits were in fact for smoking crack, which they confirmed. Based on what has been put in crack smoking kits across the country, we reported that the government would be funding crack pipes. This is what smoking kits are.”
However, the Free Beacon story, as of Feb. 17, still erroneously attributes its claim about the administration funding crack pipes to an HHS spokesman. An “updated” version of the story still says, “A spokesman for the agency told the Washington Free Beacon that these kits will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine.” The article also carries the same headline (“Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity’”).
In contrast, Newsweek corrected its Feb. 9 article and changed its headline from “Why the Biden Admin Is Handing Out Free Crack Pipes” to “Why the Biden Administration Wants to Hand Out ‘Safe Smoking’ Kits.” In its correction, which was posted at 7:30 p.m. that same day, Newsweek said: “The original headline on this story inaccurately said the administration planned to hand out crack pipes. The story has also been updated with additional context including a statement from HHS.”
Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas included the original Newsweek headline and a link to its article as part of an online press release that his office issued on Feb. 9, the same day that he spoke about the Biden administration funding the “distribution of crack pipes” at a press conference and on the Senate floor.
But Marshall’s website has not been updated to reflect the corrected Newsweek headline.
Questioning Drug Policy Decision
After HHS and the White House clarified that pipes would not be included in the kits, there was backlash from all sides.
As reported by the Washington Post Fact Checker, the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that seeks alternatives to drug laws, issued a statement headlined “Health Policy Must be Driven by Evidence, Not Dictated by Clickbait.”
The statement accused the Biden administration of reversing course on placing pipes in the safe smoking kits. “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,” the alliance said. “Safe smoking equipment is another tool in the harm reduction toolbox that can reduce harm and save lives.”
Matt Sutton, a Drug Policy Alliance spokesperson, told the Post that some groups that had been planning to apply for grants had assumed that was the case. “That was the intention,” he said. “It would seem pointless to distribute these kits without” pipes, which “are the main part of the smoking kit to prevent the transmission of disease.”
In a Feb. 15 letter to the HHS secretary, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas echoed Sutton’s remarks. “Safe smoking kits have been used across the country and often contain glass pipes,” Cotton wrote. “In fact, ‘safe’ pipes are usually the entire point of ‘safe smoking kits.'”
Cotton asked Becerra to turn over correspondence between HHS and grant applicants regarding “safe smoking kits.” The senator alleged that the administration “planned to allow the safe smoking kits to include crack pipes,” but it changed course after it “got caught.”
The White House said that crack pipes were never a part of the safe smoking kits and that this is “not a change in policy.” We could find no evidence to confirm, or contradict, this.
Racial Equity in Response to Opioid Epidemic
The article published in the Free Beacon also misleadingly reported that the Biden administration was funding the distribution of crack pipes “to advance ‘racial equity.’”
The term “racial equity” references an executive order signed by Biden in January 2021 that requires federal agencies to provide “underserved communities” equal access to federal programs. The order defines member of such communities as “Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”
In compliance with the order, the “notice of funding opportunity” for the Harm Reduction Grant Program includes language saying that it “is in alignment with the expectations related to Executive Order 13985 ‘Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.’”
The Harm Reduction Grant Program aims to reduce drug overdoses, which is largely a problem with opioids. Opioids were the leading cause of drug overdose in 2019 and had been considered to disproportionately affect white Americans — but that is no longer considered the case.
In 2019, 72% of opioid overdoses involved white Americans, 15% involved Black Americans, 11% involved Hispanic Americans and 2% involved others, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But data from a study published in December in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that Black and white patients have been prescribed opioids at similar rates since the early 2000s.
The study, titled “Trends in Prescription Opioid and Nonopioid Analgesic Use by Race, 1996–2017,” indicated that prescribing limits helped opioid use decline across racial and ethnic groups.
“Although [prescription opioid use] is often associated with Whites, a significant proportion of the Black population may also be at risk. Finally, although lower POU among Hispanics may be protective of misuse, it could represent undertreatment,” the study concluded.
The grant program aims to respond to the opioid epidemic by ensuring that underserved communities have equal access to resources to combat opioid overdoses.
But the claims in the Free Beacon article led to an outcry from some Black leaders and media outlets who assumed the Harm Reduction Grant Program was targeting Black Americans and encouraging drug use.
“Black America, please remember that as our communities are struggling to get by due to a failing economy, Joe Biden’s solution is for the government to hand out crack pipes,” tweeted Dr. Willie J. Montague, a Florida Republican candidate for Congress.
“We went from the lowest Black unemployment to our tax dollars paying for crack pipes to ship into Black communities,” reads another tweet from Montague.
Lavern Spicer, a Republican who ran for a seat in the House to represent Florida’s 24th Congressional District in 2020, tweeted, “An 80-year-old white man thinks the best way to promote racial equality is handing out CRACK PIPES to Black folk. In my whole life, I have never heard a dumber thing than this bullshit.”
Other Black leaders questioned how misinformation can spread so quickly in the community.
Roland Martin, a Black journalist and digital commentator, posted on Twitter, “How does misinformation spread to Black people? When Black outlets publish bullshit from right-wing rags. Nine hours ago @TheShadeRoom ran with that BS crack pipe story. On IG, It got 177,369 likes and 61,450 comments. The correction 6 hours ago? 19,888 likes; 2,257 comments.”
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