Free Beacon Investigates: Five cities, five free crack pipes
Crack pipes are distributed in safe-smoking kits up and down the East Coast, raising questions about the Biden administration’s assertion that its multimillion-dollar harm reduction grant program wouldn’t funnel taxpayer dollars to drug paraphernalia.
The findings are the result of Washington Free Beacon visits to five harm-reduction organizations and calls to over two dozen more. In fact, every organization we visited—facilities in Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond, Va.—included crack pipes in the kits.
The kits became the subject of national attention in the wake of a Free Beacon report in February indicating that a $30 million harm-reduction program was set to fund the distribution of free crack pipes in “safe-smoking kits.” Pressed on the matter in a Feb. 9 press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a full-throated denial.
“They were never a part of the kit, it was inaccurate reporting,” Psaki said of the pipes. “A safe smoking kit may contain alcohol swabs, lip balm, other materials to promote hygiene and reduce the transmission of diseases.”
While the contents of safe-smoking kits vary from one organization to another—and while those from some organizations may not contain crack pipes—all of the organizations we visited made crack pipes as well as paraphernalia for the use of heroin, cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine readily available without requiring or offering rehabilitation services, suggesting that pipes are included in many if not most of the kits distributed across the country. All of the centers we visited are run by health-focused nonprofits and government agencies—the types of groups eligible to receive funding, starting this month, from the Biden administration’s $30 million grant program.
None of the organizations responded to inquiries about whether they applied for government grants. It is not clear which organizations will receive those grants, nor has the administration said how it will ensure the kits will not contain crack pipes. The Department of Health and Human Services, which will oversee the Biden grant program, declined to provide a list of groups that have applied for funding, citing “confidentiality.” The Biden administration is set to announce grant recipients on May 15.
The Free Beacon‘s findings contradict claims from a raft of fact-checkers who, based on the White House’s ex-post-facto denial, deemed the Free Beacon‘s reporting false.
A USA Today headline asking, “What’s inside a safe smoking kit?” answered: “No, it’s not a crack pipe.” The outlet based its fact-check solely on the administration’s denial and does not appear to have done any additional research on safe smoking kits. The author, Michelle Shen, did not respond to a request for comment.
A survey of more than two dozen harm reduction organizations found that not all harm reduction organizations distribute safe smoking kits, but those that do almost always provide crack pipes. The few that don’t include crack pipes in their kits say they are willing to, but unable to.
At Washington, D.C.’s Family and Medical Counseling Service, Inc., for example, a member of the group’s needle exchange team told the Free Beacon that the organization would love to offer crack pipes as part of its safe smoking kit but hasn’t been able to purchase them.
“I would if I knew how,” said Tyrone Pinkney, who distributes clean needles from a recreational vehicle and said he did not know where to buy crack pipes to include in the kits.
Pinkney, however, appears to be an exception. Here is what the Free Beacon found in each city.
At Charm City Care Connection, a nonprofit that provides harm reduction services to combat “oppression,” an employee said that identification is not required to receive a smoking kit, but did ask for initials, a date of birth, and zip code before handing over two smoking kits containing glass crack pipes as well as Chore Boy copper mesh, a cleaning product used to hold the crack rock at the end of the pipe.
The bag included directions for how to use the pipe, heat-resistant mouthpieces, wooden sticks for packing the mesh into the pipe, and alcohol wipes. Most importantly, the organization provides all drug paraphernalia recipients an “Authorized Harm Reduction Program Participant Card” that serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card to show to law enforcement, because the paraphernalia is otherwise illegal in the state of Maryland.
Charm City Care Connection receives funding from both the Baltimore city and Maryland state governments, as well as at least $200,000 from left-wing billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations as part of the organization’s “Addiction and Health Equity Program.” According to the group’s disclosures, it received $200,000 in government grants in 2019. It has a partnership with Johns Hopkins University and half of its board of directors work for the university.
Women in Baltimore can have crack pipes delivered to their door. Katie Evans, the outreach director of the SPARC Women’s Center, says the organization will deliver smoking kits with crack pipes to anyone with “non-men identities.” The center, which is run through Johns Hopkins University, will also deliver syringes, snorting kits, and “sex supplies,” Evans said.
Evans would not say whether SPARC Women’s Center applied for a Health and Human Services grant. Charm City Care Connection also did not respond to a request for comment about whether it had applied for a Health and Human Services grant.
In Boston’s South End neighborhood, a man was seen injecting a needle into his calf about 30 feet away from a police car outside the Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Education facility, which is run by the Boston Public Health Commission.
Inside the facility, an employee recorded our initials, date of birth, housing situation, and HIV status before offering an array of drug equipment. The bin of crack pipes was visible just above a bin of syringes labeled “biggie smalls” and “ultra fine,” different options for injecting drugs into different parts of the body.
“One pipe per person, once a day,” a worker, who emerged with a crack pipe, meth pipe, and additional drug accessories such as Chore Boy copper, told the Free Beacon.
An employee said the facility no longer offers get-out-of-jail-free cards because the police don’t arrest people for drug possession any longer.
“We’re way past that,” the employee said, though possession of drug paraphernalia is still a crime in the city. The Boston Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The Boston Public Health Commission did not respond to a request for comment about whether it had applied for a Health and Human Services grant.
At the Alliance’s Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, a young staffer offers up a long menu of drug paraphernalia available free of charge. Included on the menu was a “booty bump” kit for rectal ingestion of narcotics, which is recommended by many harm reduction centers as a safer way to use meth.
After providing initials, date of birth, and zip code, the Free Beacon was given two drug pipes, one for crack and one for meth, as well as an authorized program card similar to what was given out in Baltimore. The smoking kits include literature with “safer smoking tips,” including a warning that “crack and meth use can lead to unprotected sex by increasing your sex drive or making you more sexually passive.” Other tips advise addicts obtain crack from a “source you trust,” and to “smoke only a little bit first if unsure about its purity.”
In addition to the Chore Boy copper mesh, the center gave out pipe screens, which work as an alternative to hold crack rocks in the pipe. The center advertises that its pipes are made of Pyrex, a stronger tempered glass designed for high heat.
The Alliance for Positive Change, also known as AIDS Service Center NYC, has received $20 million from Health and Human Services since 2004—mostly for AIDS and HIV-related programs—with the majority of grants distributed during the Obama administration. The organization has received $74 million in government grants since 2009.
The Alliance for Positive Change did not respond to a request for comment about whether it had applied for a Health and Human Services grant.
Just about a mile from the U.S. Capitol and within blocks of two elementary schools, a harm reduction center in Washington, D.C., had readily available pipes for crack and meth, as well as Chore Boy mesh, copper screens, and the same mouthpieces offered in Baltimore.
“Which kind do you want?” a volunteer asked after this reporter inquired about smoking kits. No information was recorded, and the center declined to look at identification that was offered. Program cards are no longer distributed by the center because possession of drug paraphernalia is decriminalized in the nation’s capital.
The harm reduction center goes by HIPS, which formerly stood for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive but has been altered to stand for Honoring Individual Power and Strength.
HIPS since 2018 has received $3.1 million from Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which oversees the Biden administration’s harm reduction program. The funds are provided through two separate programs: one for LGBTQ housing and another for medication-assisted treatment.
HIPS did not respond to a request for comment about whether it had applied for a Health and Human Services grant.
Employees of the River City Harm Redux organization were found at a table set up outside a hotel on the outskirts of Richmond, Va. This reporter asked for two crack smoking kits, but was told only one remained in the day’s offerings. To make up for the shortcoming, the employees added a meth pipe along with two “snorting kits,” which include straws, a plastic razor blade to break up drugs, short plastic straws, a small spoon, and a bedazzled playing card to snort drugs off of.
The organization is not an authorized harm reduction site recognized by the Virginia Department of Health. Possession of drug paraphernalia in Virginia is a Class 1 misdemeanor. A conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia can result in up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
“If they are not authorized they are not protected by the law that allows sites to furnish paraphernalia,” Bruce Taylor, the drug use coordinator for the department, told the Free Beacon. Taylor said Virginia does not allow harm reduction facilities to include crack pipes in their smoking kits, and that his department is not aware of River City Harm Redux.
River City Harm Redux did not respond to a request for comment about whether it had applied for a Health and Human Services grant.
The Biden administration last week was forced to vehemently deny it will fund the distribution of crack pipes, after the Washington Free Beacon‘s reporting uncovered plans for “safe smoking kits” included in a $30 million “harm reduction” grant. The denial surprised not only administration officials—who still seem unsure if they were ever going to distribute pipes—but also some advocates, who claimed the administration was letting “clickbait” and “racism” drive policy.
A bigger question has been lost in the dispute over the administration’s plan: Why did anyone think handing out government-funded crack pipes was a good idea in the first place? Why would HHS be funding “safe smoking kits” which, even if they don’t contain “stems,” do include other paraphernalia that facilitate the use of crack cocaine, meth, heroin, and other drugs?
Such methods are just one example of “harm reduction,” an approach to drug policy that has attracted attention in some big, blue cities; the “unprecedented” harm-reduction grant program is one of several signs that federal policymakers are similarly interested. Amid a historic wave of drug overdose deaths, it’s little surprise that policymakers are considering unorthodox ideas. But while some harm reduction ideas have merit, the label is often a cover for radical proposals backed by the shoddiest evidence, proposals that could do real harm.
In principle, “harm reduction” refers to practices that mitigate the harms of drug use without reducing use itself. Such approaches need not be controversial. HHS’s grant outline, for example, mentions funding disease-testing kits to help people who use drugs be informed about their HIV or hepatitis C status, and therefore hopefully reduce transmission. In the broader context of drug policy, harm reduction can operate alongside enforcement, treatment, and education to minimize the harms of illegal drugs.
But the term can also include policies pushed by more activist-minded “harm reductionists” who are concerned not just with particular policies, but with a wholesale critique of (their understanding of) American drug policy.
These activists tend to view the “drug war” and drug criminalization as more harmful than drug use. They argue that overdose deaths are driven by an “unsafe” supply of drugs, which is itself (they claim) a product of criminalization. Some—including Columbia University professor Carl Hart—insist that most drug use is not problematic, and that most problematic use is a product of social “stigma” rather than the intrinsically dangerous characteristics of drugs.
The distribution of “safe smoking kits” including “glass stems” is typical of the harm reductionist approach. As the Drug Policy Alliance, a major harm reduction group, describes it, such policies are meant to “meet people where they are at, and keep people free of diseases and alive so they have a chance of recovery and healing.” The group claims that distributing safe smoking kits is an “evidence-based” practice, rhetoric often deployed by harm reductionists to paint political opponents as “anti-science.”
In reality, the evidence on which safe smoking kits are based is paper-thin.
One common argument for crack-pipe distribution is that it reduces hepatitis C and HIV infection among users, by reducing pipe sharing and therefore hypothetical contact between drug users’ cut lips. This was HHS’s stated justification for funding safe smoking kits, for example.
But the evidence that pipe sharing is actually a disease risk is weak, relying on surveys of drug users that correlate sharing with infection while doing little to account for confounding variables. Notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not seem to accept the “pipe spread” theory, counting needle sharing as a risk factor for HIV and hepatitis C, but not pipe sharing. One study claims to find an effect of Vancouver’s pipe distribution on users’ self-reported health, but there appears to be no actual trend in the data. Some evidence suggests that pipe sharing persists even when pipes are distributed, possibly because sharing is done as a social activity as much as out of necessity
A better-supported argument for distributing pipes is that users may switch from injecting to smoking, which can in turn reduce disease and other risks. The measured effects are not huge, though: One year after a safe smoking program was rolled out in Ottawa, 56 percent of users reported injecting at the same rate, while only 29 percent said they had started smoking more. Further, it’s hard to square that evidence with the harm reduction commitment to also distributing syringes, something HHS will also fund.
The standard argument against the distribution of drug paraphernalia, and indeed many harm-reduction interventions, is “moral hazard,” the idea that if policy reduces the risks of a harmful practice, people will be more likely to engage in that practice. Even if pipe distribution reduces the average user’s risk of infection per use, for example, it might also lead him to smoke more, increasing the total number of infections overall.
Harm reductionists often dismiss “moral hazard” as a non-issue, but it can show up in even seemingly benign policies. Studies have found that expanding needle exchange programs may lead to an increase in opioid deaths, and that laws which make it easier to access the overdose-reversing drug naloxone in turn cause an increase in opioid-related ER visits, and no reduction in opioid-related deaths. The latter study, by economists Jennifer Doleac and Anita Mukherjee, attracted fierce criticism from harm reductionists when it debuted—criticism that was often more personal than “evidence-based.”
The aforementioned examples do not mean, of course, that pipe distribution necessarily increases drug use or OD deaths. But the evidence is not there to say that distribution works, either. That makes it alarming that states and localities have accepted it as standard practice, or that the Biden administration will fund safe smoking kits—in whatever form—without better research into their effects.
Indeed, policymakers are increasingly accepting harm reductionists’ favorite policies absent evidence against the risk of moral hazard. Major U.S. cities have recently opened so-called safe consumption sites, facilities where people can consume drugs under the supervision of medical staff with access to overdose-reversing medication. The evidence to support their efficacy is similarly weak; some sites saw increases in deaths and drug use in their immediate vicinity.
Nevertheless, the Biden Department of Justice indicated earlier this month that it was “evaluating” such sites “as part of an overall approach to harm reduction and public safety.” That would be a reversal of the Trump administration’s enforcement of the federal ban on drug consumption spaces, and another sign of sympathy for harm reduction from the White House.
Such a policy shift would be uncharted territory, at least for the United States. With drug overdose deaths pushing 100,000 a year, the experiment might be worth it. But it will more than likely cost more lives than it saves, a risk to which progressive leaders seem plainly blind.
… and the fact-checkers actually are
The Biden administration thinks you, the American people, are stupid. That much is clear given its response this week to a Washington Free Beacon report exposing the administration’s plan to “fund the distribution of crack pipes to drug addicts as part of its plan to advance ‘racial equity.'”
Despite confirming the details of reporter Patrick Hauf’s story, the Department of Health and Human Services subsequently determined—more than 24 hours after publication—that the story was “blatant misinformation.” A spokesperson offered no evidence to support this claim. Asked for clarification, the spokesperson responded 10 hours later to denounce once again the report as “misleading and misinformed” but offered no evidence as justification.
Media “fact-checkers” willingly repurposed the administration’s talking points in an attempt to discredit our reporting. Not surprisingly, the result was an incoherent mess. Snopes, for example, said our story was “mostly false” because crack pipes were “just one of around 20 components of the grant program.” (We know, because we listed several others in the report, such as “syringes, vaccinations, disease screenings, condoms, and fentanyl strips.”) Not a single word contradicted what the Free Beacon reported.
Another “independent” “fact-check” by a website called Lead Stories (we’ve never heard of it, either) resulted in Facebook censoring the report for containing “false information.” The site was co-founded by a former CNN journalist and a Colorado personal injury attorney who has donated thousands of dollars to Democrats and zero dollars to Republicans, so it must be a reliable source.
Both fact checks have been updated after the administration announced on Wednesday that “no federal funding will be used” to distribute crack pipes to underserved communities in an effort to promote racial equity. White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted that crack pipes “were never a part” of the “safe smoking kits” described in government documents. She blamed “inaccurate reporting” for the confusion.
The Drug Policy Alliance was also confused, and understandably so. The group’s executive director, Kassandra Frederique, accused the administration of “backtracking” and expressed disappointment that “they will no longer allow federal funding to go towards putting pipes in safer smoking supplies.”https://3675ec6066ba5383f948888a8eac51e0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Got that? The administration “will no longer” provide free crack pipes that “were never a part” of the taxpayer-funded smoking kits. Because the right-wing media are publishing “inaccurate reporting” and spreading “blatant disinformation.” It’s almost as if the White House is full of shit and thinks you’re stupid. (Fact check: They are and they do.)
That’s the only reasonable conclusion. The administration’s story is utter nonsense. Existing harm reduction programs across the country include pipes in the smoking kits they give to crack addicts. Take, for example, a program from California’s Department of Public Health, which openly advertises glass pipes. Other programs in cities such as Annapolis, Md., New Haven, Conn., and Seattle, Wash., all include crack pipes in their smoking kits.
These are exactly the sort of cities the administration was targeting when it announced the funding opportunity, and there is nothing in the announcement that tells these communities they would have to modify the contents of their smoking kits to qualify for funding. In fact, the HHS spokesman told the Free Beacon that the department does not specify what is in the kits, leaving that detail to program participants at the local level.
Even after the White House denial that crack pipes will be funded, the administration still won’t say it never planned to include them. “The department did not respond when asked by the New York Times if glass pipes were ever allowable under the grant provisions,” the paper wrote on Thursday evening.https://3675ec6066ba5383f948888a8eac51e0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Like most Democratic institutions, the Biden administration has a habit of dismissing inconvenient stories as “misinformation” without actually refuting them. Administration officials tend to lash out at anyone who questions their authority or expresses an ounce of skepticism. Last week, for example, journalists who requested evidence to back up the administration’s claims regarding a military strike in Syria or the situation in Ukraine were accused of siding with the enemy.
It makes sense that the Biden administration would be especially sensitive when it comes to inconvenient stories about crack pipes. But that doesn’t excuse the blatant misinformation or their shockingly low opinion of the American public’s intelligence. You deserve better and, at least according to the supporters of this administration’s original plan, so do America’s crackheads.