By Tara Subramaniam, CNN
Last week, an article claiming that the Biden administration planned to give away crack pipes to drug addicts went viral, eliciting outrage on the right and prompting a series of clarifications from the administration.
The February 7 article from the Washington Free Beacon pointed to a federal grant program administered by an agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, aimed at helping those with substance abuse problems. Among the approved uses of the $29 million program was the purchase of “safe smoking kits/supplies,” which the article claimed included crack pipes.
Several members of Congress have seized on its claims with some using it to propose new legislation to limit federal funding for drug paraphernalia.
Others are already campaigning off of it. In a fundraising email sent on February 15, Blake Harbin, a congressional candidate from Georgia, claimed that tax dollars are currently being used for a “crack pipe fund” and promise that if elected “there won’t be a single cent of government money spent on crack pipes.”
Prior to the Free Beacon article, neither HHS nor the mental health agency responsible for overseeing the grant program specified what would be in the kits, raising questions about whether or not they would in fact include crack pipes.
Facts First: It’s not true that tax dollars are currently being used for a “crack pipe fund.” While HHS and the White House have since said they never planned to include pipes in the kits, the parameters for the grant did not explicitly state that. Furthermore, previous reports on harm reduction have noted that safer smoking kits often do include glass stems or pipes.
Part of the initial confusion stems from the Free Beacon article, which claimed a spokesman for HHS told the publication the kits will provide crack pipes. However, an investigation by the Washington Post of the email exchange between the author of the article and the agency spokesperson found that the spokesperson did not specify that pipes would be included, only that the kits would be intended to help users of any illicit substance, including crack, reduce risk while smoking.
According to the Post, the author of the Free Beacon article also did not specifically ask what would be included in the kits but instead likely got his information from publicly available information about what is usually in such kits, which do often include pipes or “glass stems,” in addition to rubber or plastic mouth pieces, wipes and lip balm.
Two days after the article was first published, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, issued a statement clarifying that “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”
When asked that same day whether the policy on pipes in the kits changed as the result of the Free Beacon reporting and subsequent backlash, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “They were never a part of the kit,” adding that “it’s not a change in policy.”
Despite these statements from the White House and HHS, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn announced on Monday that she would block quick passage of a continuing resolution to fund the government until she received assurances from HHS about what the grant funds could be used for. She released her hold after she said she received a written commitment from Becerra that taxpayer dollars will not be used to fund crack pipes.
The political attention surrounding the grant program has also sparked debate over what federal funds can and should be used for.
Under federal law, the sale of drug paraphernalia, such as crack pipes, is currently prohibited, unless authorized by local or state law, but the statute does not include specific language prohibiting distribution.
“It’s kind of a gray area,” said Matt Sutton, director of public relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, when asked about the legal parameters around harm reduction efforts.
Part of the reason for that, according to Sutton, is because federal efforts to provide funding for harm reduction, like the HHS grant, are relatively new.
“There have been other funding mechanisms, but this is the first time there has ever been specific federal funding going to it,” Sutton said. “I think that has created some of the confusion.”
With the harm reduction grant in the news the past few weeks, some Senators have proposed new legislation that picks up where the existing law leaves off.
One such effort is the Cutting off Rampant Access to Crack Kits or CRACK Act, which is aimed at prohibiting the use of federal funds to directly or indirectly purchase, supply or distribute crack pipes. Additionally, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Marco Rubio of Florida introduced the bipartisan Preventing Illicit Paraphernalia for Exchange Systems (PIPES) Act, which widens the scope slightly “to prohibit federal funding from being used to purchase illegal drug paraphernalia, such as needles or crack pipes.” Rubio has also put a hold on the CR funding bill, in hopes of getting the PIPES bill passed quickly.
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