After a wave of grossly misleading news coverage in February 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stipulated that federal funding would not be used to include pipes in safe smoking kits, as part of a substance abuse harm reduction grant program. This newly-stipulated detail was not originally available, meaning the assertions made in a first wave of coverage had become outdated.
[Editor's note: This article has been updated after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stipulated that federal funding would not be used to include pipes in the safe smoking kits to be distributed as part of a substance abuse harm reduction program. As a result of that newly-stipulated detail, Snopes has changed its rating from "Mostly False" to "Outdated."]
In February 2022, right-leaning outlets and leading Republicans reported breathlessly that the Biden administration had plans to fund the distribution of crack pipes in order to advance the cause of racial equity. On Feb. 8, for example, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said on Twitter that the administration "is going to be sending crack pipes and meth pipes, targeting minority communities in this country," calling the supposed plan "insane."
On Feb. 7, JustTheNews.com published an article with the headline "Biden administration funding crack pipe distribution, saying it’s needed for racial equity."
For its part, ChicksOnTheRight.com went with the headline "Biden Admin Spending $30M To Give Crack Pipes, Drug Kits To Addicts For 'Advancing Racial Equity'" and wrote:
The Biden Administration is going to spend $30 million taxpayer dollars on free crack pipes and drug use kits for minority demographic drug addicts, in an effort to support Biden’s executive order on “advancing racial equity.” I wish I were joking. I really do. But I just couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
Meanwhile, The Blaze wrote:
The Biden administration will soon fund the distribution of crack pipes to drug addicts in underserved communities for the purpose of "advancing racial equity," the Washington Free Beacon reported.
Collectively, these articles and social media posts gave readers a grossly misleading and reductive presentation of what was a real substance abuse harm reduction grant overseen by the Biden administration in early 2022. As such, Snopes originally issued a rating of "Mostly False." Briefly, that rating was based on the following assessment, reproduced here from the original fact check:
It's true that the grant description required the provision of harm reduction supplies, and listed "safe smoking kits" as an example — an established component of harm reduction strategy — but in reality, those kits constituted just one of several sub-components of an even longer list of requirements for grant recipients. In other words, while outraged media coverage focused almost exclusively on "crack pipes," this was actually only a very small part of the program.
Secondly, the provision of safer smoking supplies did not have as its purpose advancing the cause of racial equity. Rather, its purpose was, quite logically, to reduce harm and infection among existing drug users. However, the grant description did state that priority would be given to applicants who serve communities that are historically underserved. In other words, the grant's terms encouraged recipients to advance racial equity while working for harm reduction, not the other way round — a crucial distinction which many outlets got wrong.
However, after this fact check was published, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Feb. 9 provided Snopes a statement which stipulated that federal funding would not be used to include pipes in smoking kits as part of the harm reduction plan. As a result, the accurate component of early news reports — that safe smoking kits typically contain glass pipes — was no longer applicable, and that initial wave of outrage was rendered outdated. As such, Snopes has changed its rating from "Mostly False" to "Outdated."
What Does the Biden Administration's Harm Reduction Document Actually Say?
The document alluded to in the news reports was a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the 2022 Harm Reduction Program Grant, issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The document can be read in full here.
In order to place the safer smoking kit component of the grant in its proper context, and demonstrate that it was just one of 20 items set out in the NOFO, the following is the relevant section of the 75-page document, in full, with numbered items, abridged for the sake of brevity:
Grant funds must be used primarily to support the following required harm reduction activities:
- Assess organizational readiness and create a strategic action plan...
- Develop a sustainability plan...
- Develop policies and procedures to implement evidence-based trauma-informed practices...
- Distribute FDA-approved overdose reversal medication and deliver overdose prevention education to target populations...
- Establish processes, protocols, mechanisms for referral to treatment and recovery support services...
- Assemble a harm reduction advisory council...
- Designate staff...to provide program design, implementation, and evaluation...
- Purchase equipment and supplies to enhance harm reduction efforts, such as:
- Harm reduction vending machine(s)...
- Infectious diseases testing kits...
- Medication lock boxes
- FDA-approved overdose reversal medication
- Safe sex kits, including PrEP resources and condoms
- Safe smoking kits/supplies
- Screening for infectious diseases (HIV, sexually transmitted infections, viral hepatitis)
- Sharps disposal and medication disposal kits
- Substance test kits, including test strips for fentanyl and other synthetic drugs
- Syringes to prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases
- Vaccination services (hepatitis A, hepatitis B vaccination)
- Wound care management supplies [Emphasis is added].
It's important to note that safe smoking kits typically consist of several other items, including: a rubber mouthpieces for glass pipes, in order to prevent burns and cuts; brass screens, in order to filter out potentially harmful contaminants or debris; as well as disinfectant wipes. As such, they are a logical component of a broader substance abuse strategy of harm reduction.
While the reporting around this document focused almost exclusively on "crack pipes," it could just as easily have focused on the infectious disease testing, naloxone provision, or even sterilized syringe distribution required of grant recipients. Disapproving news articles zeroed in on the safe smoking kits not because of the prominence given to them in the grant description itself, but simply because it allowed them to include "crack pipes" in their headlines.
However, as we have already mentioned, a HHS statement provided to Snopes on Feb. 9 stipulated that pipes would not be included in those safe smoking kits:
Today, on the heels of organizations applying for grant money for harm reduction efforts, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Dr. Rahul Gupta released the following statement:
“HHS and ONDCP are focused on using our resources smartly to reduce harm and save lives. Accordingly, no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits..." [Emphasis is added].
The second major misrepresentation in the news coverage related to the role of "racial equity" in the grant program.
To be clear, the Biden administration has not stated that the purpose of the Harm Reduction Program Grant in general, or the reference to safe smoking kits in particular, is to "advance racial equity." Lest there be any confusion over the stated purpose of the harm reduction program, and the grants, the document set that out clearly at the very outset, as follows:
The purpose of the program is to support community-based overdose prevention programs, syringe services programs, and other harm reduction services. Funding will be used to enhance overdose and other types of prevention activities to help control the spread of infectious diseases and the consequences of such diseases for individuals with, or at risk of developing substance use disorders (SUD), support distribution of FDA-approved overdose reversal medication to individuals at risk of overdose, build connections for individuals at risk for, or with, a SUD to overdose education, counseling, and health education, refer individuals to treatment for infectious diseases, such as HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and viral hepatitis, and encourage such individuals to take steps to reduce the negative personal and public health impacts of substance use or misuse... [Emphasis is added].
So while JustTheNews.com, for example, wrote in its headline that the Biden administration had said crack pipe distribution was "needed for racial equity," in reality it had said no such thing.
What the HHS document did say about racial equity was as follows. Every applicant for the harm reduction grant is required to provide a two-page "behavioral disparity impact statement," which roughly speaking, sets out in advance, details about the population which the grant applicant serves, including individuals from historically underserved communities including "racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minority groups."
The document further states that: "The priority populations for this program are underserved communities that are greatly impacted by SUD [substance use disorders]" and clarifies that "underserved communities" is as defined in Executive Order 13985 — Biden's first executive order, signed on Jan. 20, 2021. In E.O. 13985, Biden affirmed:
It is...the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.
E.O. 13985 also defined "underserved communities" as including:
Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.
Finally, the HHS document stated that, in addition to assessing the overall strengths of each application for a grant, it would "prioritize funding for programs which address the needs of underserved communities."
In conclusion, the HHS document clearly stated that the purpose of the grant program was to support harm reduction services, and that one of 20 concrete ways of doing that was with safer smoking kits. It also set out that in pursuing that overarching harm reduction mission, it would prioritize programs which serve historically under-resourced groups. Subsequently, after this fact check was first published, HHS stipulated that federal funding would not be used to include pipes in any safe smoking kits.
This article has been updated based on new information. The original version was last archived on Feb. 9, 2022.
“Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” Federal Register, 25 Jan. 2021, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/01/25/2021-01753/advancing-racial-equity-and-support-for-underserved-communities-through-the-federal-government.Argyle, Natalie. “Biden Admin Spending $30M To Give Crack Pipes, Drug Kits To Addicts For ‘Advancing Racial Equity.’” Chicks On The Right, 7 Feb. 2022, https://www.chicksonright.com/blog/2022/02/07/biden-admin-spending-30m-to-give-crack-pipes-drug-kits-to-addicts-for-advancing-racial-equity/.“Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity.’” Washington Free Beacon, 7 Feb. 2022, https://freebeacon.com/biden-administration/biden-admin-to-fund-crack-pipe-distribution-to-advance-racial-equity/.“Biden Administration Funding Crack Pipe Distribution, Saying It’s Needed for Racial Equity.” Just The News, https://justthenews.com/government/federal-agencies/decades-after-reagans-just-say-no-biden-hhs-funds-crack-pipe. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.Harm Reduction. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/harm-reduction. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.Harris, Adam. “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession.” The Atlantic, 7 May 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/05/gops-critical-race-theory-fixation-explained/618828/.Naloxone. https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/medications-counseling-related-conditions/naloxone. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.“Report: Biden Admin to Send Crack Pipes to Drug Addicts to Advance ‘Racial Equity.’” TheBlaze, 7 Feb. 2022, https://www.theblaze.com/news/biden-admin-to-send-crack-pipes-to-drug-addicts.