When Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced in December 2021 that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would be distributing up to $30 million in grants to overdose prevention and harm reduction efforts around the country, no one anticipated the backlash that would surface two months later.
By early February, conservative media were already doing what they do best. The right-wing Washington Free Beacon reported an article titled “Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity’”; the byline claims the $30 million budget for the SAMHSA grant program “will provide ‘smoking kits’ to vulnerable communities.” For the bulk of Americans who won’t bother to read past the headline to ease the burden on their busy lives, the title and subtitle paint a picture of Biden’s multi-million dollar program as dedicated to distributing “crack pipes” to poor communities. The pervasive stigma and misinformation around addiction will ultimately lead many to believe this is an abhorrent idea meant to keep those with substance addictions addicted.
This idea is misleading and rests atop decades of racist and classist doctrinaire on drugs and drug policy.
To address the deceptive nature of the conservative response to this harm reduction grant program — which provides funding for a diverse range of resources such as fentanyl testing strips, overdose prevention materials, STI treatments, safe injection sites, sterile syringes and the aforementioned “safe smoking kits” — we must first define harm reduction.
According to Harm Reduction International, an international organization dedicated to “reducing the negative health, social and legal impacts of drug use and drug policy,” harm reduction refers to “policies, programmes and practices that aim to minimize negative health, social and legal impacts associated with drug use, drug policies and drug laws.” HRI places a particular emphasis on human rights and social justice in its approach to teaching and conducting harm reduction.
The key to harm reduction is understanding it is better to preserve life than to abandon it. For example, providing sites where people with heroin addictions can safely inject under supervision with clean needles to prevent withdrawal is far better than letting them shoot heroin of unknown origin with a needle that could transmit a disease like HIV, resulting in a deadly overdose. This is a practical image of how harm reduction is life-affirming.
The notion that harm reduction preserves addictions is completely fallacious, as the goal of harm reduction is not to quell addiction. Addiction to any substance, let alone “hard drugs” like methamphetamines, heroin and opioids, are impossible to kick in a short period of time. Harm reduction advocates understand that using drugs to defeat drugs is a silly idea. The point of harm reduction is to ensure that people can survive to seek treatment if they choose that option. Keep in mind, remaining addicted does not mean that someone’s value as a human being is reduced. It is also true that addiction treatment is not as accessible to poor people and people of color, which and demands substantive improvements.
The Free Beacon article’s choice to focus on smoking kits as its object of criticism is influenced by the racialized association of crack cocaine with Black communities. Nowhere in the article does the author take issue with other harm reduction methods (notwithstanding their moralistic disdain for drug users in general) — the opposition is of a uniquely racist character.
Furthermore, the headline’s claim that the SAMHSA grant is meant to advance racial equity is, like most sensationalist conservative claims, completely made up. The Program Grant makes only one reference to racial equity, that being a statement of compliance with the “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” signed by the Biden White House in January. In sum, the author made it about race — a criticism typically leveled against the left.
It is nonetheless important to remember that contemporary drug policy is without a doubt racist and contributes to the targeted mass incarceration of Black people and the overpolicing of Black and Latine communities.
The Biden administration never explicitly permitted funding for glass stems, which can be used to smoke methamphetamines, opioids and crack cocaine. In fact, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki clarified that “[glass stems] were never part of the [safe smoking] kits,” which may include alcohol wipes, lip balm and other safety equipment. Even if they did (how is HHS supposed to know or enforce what is included in safe smoking kits?), it would be a good thing meant to preserve the lives of drug users. It is tragic that due to both the reactionary criticisms of conservative lawmakers and media, as well as its own anti-drug user political biases, the Biden administration capitulated and decided it had the right to police and dilute the work of harm reduction organizations and experts.