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Viral article that unleashed ‘crack pipe’ firestorm relied on assumptions

Crystallized methamphetamine and a pipe. (Matt York/AP)
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“A spokesman for the agency told the Washington Free Beacon that these kits will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and ‘any illicit substance.’”

— sentence in news article, “Biden Admin to fund crack pipe distribution to advance ‘racial equity,' ” published Feb. 7

A Washington Free Beacon article caused a firestorm in the upper echelons of Washington by asserting the Biden administration would spend federal dollars to distribute crack pipes.

Republican lawmakers denounced the Biden administration. Some senators immediately backed a new bill, the Cutting off Rampant Access to Crack Kits (CRACK) Act, which would prohibit any federal funds from directly or indirectly purchasing, supplying or distributing crack pipes or similar drug paraphernalia.

The White House denied that the administration ever had any such plans and accused the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon of spreading “misinformation.”

From our jaundiced view of covering Washington for more than three decades, we thought we understood what was going on. We were struck by the fact that the official Department of Health and Human Services statement was more carefully worded than the sharp White House comment. We figured a sub-agency was chugging along with a new program and confirmed its plans to a reporter. When the story exploded, the White House reacted, the top brass at the main agency responded and suddenly a more specific policy was created.

But it’s more complicated than that. The Free Beacon and HHS shared their email exchanges with the Fact Checker, so we can show readers how this story came about.

The initial inquiry

Smoking kits are intended to transition addicts away from injecting drugs, on the theory that inhaling drugs generally leads to fewer overdoses and less transmission of diseases.

Patrick Hauf, the Free Beacon reporter, on the morning of Feb. 2 emailed the media office at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an arm of HHS.

He wrote that he had watched a webinar about a $30 million harm reduction grant program that seeks to minimize the risks associated with drug use. He asked: “One of the listed types of equipment qualified to be purchased with grant money is ‘safe smoking kits/supplies.’ Could you please specify what these kits are and how they can help with harm reduction in communities?”

After several hours, a SAMHSA spokesman, Christopher Garrett, responded with a statement, which he said could be attributed to him by name.

Here’s the full statement:

Unsafe smoking practices can lead to open sores, burns and cuts on the lips, and can increase the risk of infection among people who smoke drugs. Safe smoking kits have been identified to reduce the spread of disease. The proposal of using grant funds to purchase supplies for safe smoking kits must be justified by Harm Reduction Program applicants as to how they contribute to preventing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases in the Harm Reduction Grant application. Harm reduction programs that use federal funding must adhere to federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and other requirements related to such programs or services.
SAMHSA does not specify the kits’ elements, only the parameters.

Hauf followed up: “Just to confirm, these kits intended to help users reduce risk when smoking crack and meth?”

Garrett replied: “I wouldn’t limit to those two substances. It would reference ‘any illicit substance.’”

(There was one additional exchange unrelated to the question of the smoking kits.)

The sausage-making

Note that Garrett’s answer avoided saying what might be in the kits — he said that SAMHSA just sets the parameters — but he added that “federal funding must adhere to federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and other requirements related to such programs or services.”

For Hauf’s part, the email exchange shows that he did not specifically ask whether pipes would be included in the kits. Instead, he looked elsewhere for examples of what is typically in such smoking kits and found that they often included glass stems (pipes).

A 2019 paper issued by Harm Reduction International says smoking kits “can include glass stems, rubber mouthpieces, brass screens, lip balm and disinfectant wipes.”

Hauf then turned Garrett’s more nuanced statement into something blunter, without using his name: “A spokesman for the agency told the Washington Free Beacon that these kits will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and ‘any illicit substance.’ ”

Brent Scher, executive editor at the Free Beacon, responded to our questions. “You are correct that the spokesman did not specifically say pipes in response to our questions, one of which was what is in the smoking kits,” he said in an email. “They said they would not specify what is in the kits. Our follow up was to verify that the kits were in fact for smoking crack, which they confirmed. Based on what has been put in crack smoking kits across the country, we reported that the government would be funding crack pipes. This is what smoking kits are.”

Jorge Silva, HHS deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said in a phone interview that Hauf jumped to a conclusion that was not warranted. He noted that Garrett’s statement made clear the kits would need to follow federal, state and local laws — a sentence that did not make it into the article.

“He never asked, and we never confirmed,” Silva said. “I honestly don’t know how that would have been answered.” He said that if Hauf had asked about funding pipes, Garrett would have checked with the SAMHSA legal department to see if an answer could be provided. But instead, Hauf “misrepresented that a spokesman confirmed that.”

The original plan is unclear

Without HHS being put on the spot before the article was published, it’s difficult to determine what the policy would have been if the program had been allowed to proceed without adverse publicity.

After the White House and HHS made clear that pipes would not be funded, the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that seeks alternatives to tough drug laws, issued a blistering statement headlined “Health Policy Must be Driven by Evidence, Not Dictated by Clickbait.” The statement accused the administration of “backtracking on providing critical evidence-based resources that could greatly improve the health of people who consume drugs through smoking.”

That would suggest the administration reversed course.

But Matt Sutton, a Drug Policy Alliance spokesman, could not say whether SAMHSA officials had ever indicated privately that glass stems could be funded with the grants. He noted, however, that some groups that had been planning to apply for grants had assumed that was the case.

“That was the intention,” he said in a phone interview. “It would seem pointless to distribute these kits without” pipes, which he said “are the main part of the smoking kit to prevent the transmission of disease.”

But not all safe smoking kits include a glass stem. The Free Beacon article, for instance, linked to a description of safe smoker kits offered by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition that included a mouthpiece designed to fit on a glass stem, but not the stem itself. That kit also included rubber bands to prevent lip burns, screens, antibiotic ointment for sores and alcohol wipes for cleaning.

Moreover, there are indications that SAMHSA might not have approved a request to include glass stems in safe smoking kits.

During the webinar that caught Hauf’s attention, one participant asked whether funds could be used to purchase syringes and cookers, a container used for mixing and heating a drug. Cara Alexander, SAMHSA director of targeted prevention, responded that syringes were okay but officials would need to verify whether the purchase of cookers could be funded.

That exchange suggests that one could not assume, as the Free Beacon did, that all materials commonly found in smoking kits would qualify for federal funding. (Silva, at our request, checked with the staff at the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, which manages the grant, and reported that “cookers are not an allowable expense.”)

The Drug Policy Alliance, on its website, has posted a January 2022 University of Washington report that says the “legal landscape” concerning safe smoker kits is complex but notes “the federal Drug Paraphernalia Act of 1979 prohibits a range of equipment used to produce, conceal, or use drugs, including all safer smoking equipment.”

Update: After this article was published, Sarah Lovenheim, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, sent The Fact Checker the following statement: “The Biden-Harris Administration has never authorized the use of federal funding for smoke pipes and will not in the future. We have not yet approved any harm reduction grants and no money for the program has gone out.”

Update, May 12: The Free Beacon reported that crack pipes are distributed in safe-smoking kits up and down the East Coast, based on visits to harm-reduction facilities in Boston, New York City, Washington, Baltimore, and Richmond, Va. “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,” the report said.

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