The reaction by certain politicians and pundits to federal harm reduction grants was ludicrous—but equally stupefying was the Biden administration’s weak-kneed defense of its programs
By Jason Langendorf
It’s impossible to pick which cringe-worthy reaction was worse in last week’s ginned-up controversy over the $30 million in federal grants pledged to fund harm reduction programs by the White House over the winter.
Was it the disingenuous, race-baiting howls of Republican lawmakers, who framed the development as the culmination of President Joe Biden’s nefarious plan to distribute crack pipes to “addicts”? Or was it the mealy-mouthed, self-sabotaging response to those claims from the White House?
Too close to call.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the initiative last December, but the outcry came only last week when a conservative Beltway website seized on a specific component of the initiative—crack pipes—which, as it turns out, was inaccurately reported from the start.
The usual suspects tucked the political football under their arms and dashed to social media and the Fox News airwaves to deliver a predictable round of propaganda and gaslighting.
The truth was actually far more interesting. The White House will distribute grants to local programs across the country that reduce the harm of drugs and addiction, a development that should have been recognized for the landmark achievement it is. For the first time, federal funding was earmarked for harm reduction for substance use, the evidence-based concept known to save lives, improve public health and save taxpayers money.
Instead, the usual suspects tucked the political football under their arms and dashed immediately to social media and the Fox News airwaves to deliver a predictable round of propaganda and gaslighting. Their accusation: that the Biden administration had planned to flood communities with free crack pipes, targeting certain demographics—and that when those intentions were uncovered, the plan was redacted and denied by the White House.
Florida senator Marco Rubio took to Twitter to accuse Biden of “sending free meth & crack pipes to minority communities in the name of ‘racial equity.’” (The quotation marks, of course, were his.) Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn threatened to gum up other government funding over the harm reduction initiative, adding, “We will not allow this administration to continue lying to the American people.” Texas senator Ted Cruz turned a public health policy into a crime issue:
Stupefying. Disgusting. Predictable. After years of countering conservative pushback and false, fear-mongering narratives, harm reduction efforts in the U.S. had recently begun to make modest headway. The federal grants could have been a moment for Americans to collectively mourn the nation’s million deaths by overdose since 1999, acknowledge the failures of the War on Drugs and dispel old myths about harm reduction—namely, that it enables drug users.
The White House Response
Even after the coordinated attack on the grant initiative, Biden’s administration could have offered evidence in the face of misinformation, holding firm on the efficacy of harm reduction and turning the faux outrage back on the politicians and talking heads hoping to score points with constituents and viewers. After decades of the demonization of crack use and unequal policing and carceral practices in Black communities, the government responsible for it all could have begun to publicly mend fences.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki might have said, “Apparently, these critics don’t want to see fewer Americans die of drug overdose and suffer from preventable infections. They seem to prefer judging people with addiction rather than helping them. They appear uninterested in righting the wrongs of past racist policy. And they seem intent on throwing good taxpayer money at bad, rejecting evidence-based practices in favor of policies that have already been proven harmful.”
By failing to support the fundamentals of its own program, the White House whiffed on a teachable moment and only perpetuated the stigma and racism that have long been directed at harm reduction.
Instead, Psaki responded last week by denying that crack pipes would be distributed as part of the initiative, making a point of clarifying language around the “smoking kits” covered as part of the grant program. HHS issued a similar statement. But at the same time the administration was emphasizing its commitment to harm reduction, it was bowing to a false narrative. By failing to support the fundamentals of its own program, the White House whiffed on a teachable moment and only perpetuated the stigma and racism that have long been directed at harm reduction programs and, specifically, people suffering from addiction.
Psaki made an important point during her address—“We don’t have time for political games,” she said—but the lede had already been buried. And from there, political critics only doubled down on their own messaging. Republicans quickly introduced the HUNTER Act (in a nod to the president’s son, Hunter Biden, a favorite GOP target) and the PIPES Act in separate legislative efforts to attempt to block federal funding for crack pipes. The lameness of those “legislative” gestures would almost have been comical if it hadn’t been so grossly stigmatizing.
In one Fox News segment, anchor Sean Hannity, referring to the White House’s clarification on the grant specifications, cued up Louisiana senator John Kennedy: “I don’t believe them,” Hannity said. “Do you think, as I do, that they’re lying?” Kennedy responded by saying that the Biden administration believes it can “make the smoking of crack cocaine and meth safe” and asked, undoubtedly knowing full well the answer, “What does any of this have to do with racial injustice?”
“Stupidity is a lot like pornography,” Kennedy opined. “It’s very hard to define, but you know it when you see it. This is stupidity.”
Yes, Senator, all of this uproar is stupid. But not for the reasons you think.
Jason Langendorf is a writer for TreatmentMagazine.com.
Artwork: Michal Matlon