The White House was put on the defensive as outrage from the political right, some of it with racial overtones, was cresting online.
“No federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and White House drug policy adviser Rahul Gupta said in a joint statement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said separately it was never the intention to pay for drug pipes, and complained that any such impression was created by “inaccurate reporting.”
Monday was the deadline for service organizations and local governments to apply for a share of $30 million in federal money for “harm reduction” efforts to prevent disease, injury and other collateral trauma to people addicted to illicit drugs. Harm reduction, such as providing a space where drug users can inject and be monitored for overdoses, is a controversial idea. Critics see it as enabling drug use, but public health advocates say it’s a pragmatic approach to keep bad situations from getting worse.
The original request for funding proposals from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration had listed “safe smoking kits/supplies” among the items that could be purchased with taxpayer money. They were among a dozen categories that included overdose prevention drugs, medication lockboxes, test kits for infectious diseases, and syringe disposal containers. The grant solicitation did not specifically mention pipes, although they can be a part of safe smoking kits.
Daniel Raymond, director of policy for the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, said only a few programs in the U.S. have handed out safe smoking kits.
“None of this was being done with federal funds,” Raymond said. “I feel very confident in saying that. I would have been aware if that were true.”
Nonetheless reports that the Biden administration was using federal dollars to pay for “crack pipes” took off. Some Republican senators piled on, castigating the administration.
Misleading claims about the HHS program dominated social media early Wednesday, many of them from conservative commentators and Republican politicians sharing memes and tweets that received tens of thousands of likes.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted: “Last week, Biden talked about being tough on crime. This week, the Biden Admin announced funds for crack pipe distribution to “advance racial equity.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee chimed in on Twitter Tuesday night to say, “End government-funded crack pipes.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called the purported pipe distribution “insanity” in a video published on Twitter, which had 245,000 views by Wednesday afternoon. “The Biden administration is going to be sending crack pipes and meth pipes targeting minority communities in this country,” he said.
Some social media users even went as far as to say that Biden and other Democrats were going to give out crack pipes during Black History Month.
“Joe Biden is handing out crack pipes to help ‘racial equity’… during Black History Month,” Errol Webber, a Black Republican candidate for California’s 47th Congressional District, said on Twitter. “No I’m not joking. No I’m not lying. This is what he thinks of our community.”
HHS spokeswoman Sarah Lovenheim tweeted that such reports were “blatant misinformation,” and Wednesday at the White House briefing Psaki said paying for pipes was never part of the plan.
“They were never a part of the kit,” said Psaki. “It was inaccurate reporting and we wanted to put out information to make that clear.”
Late Wednesday, Rubio issued a press release saying, “I am glad the Biden administration acknowledges sending crack pipes to our nation’s addicts is a bad idea.”
Advocates of harm reduction feared the blow-up would hamper efforts to coax drug users out of the shadows.
Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University School of Law, said he was disappointed by the White House response.
“This administration has said repeatedly they are making harm reduction one of their key priorities,” Beletsky said. “As soon as there’s a little right-wing echo chamber pushback against something that is quite sound and rooted in science, they backtrack. They put their tail between their legs and back pedal.”
But administration officials Becerra and Gupta said they continue to stand by “proven harm reduction strategies like providing naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and clean syringes.” HHS also pointed out that the harm reduction grants are required to conform to federal, state and local laws, and crack pipes are illegal in many jurisdictions.
Homemade pipes for smoking crack and methamphetamine may break easily or also release toxic fumes. Because of that, safer pipes may be one of the components of the kits.
But they also can and do include other supplies, such as alcohol wipes to clean hands or a pipe, or lip balm for cracked lips, Raymond said. Such give-away kits can be a way to start a conversation with drug users, perhaps pointing them toward change.