skid row in los angeles, california

Chapman’s News & Ideas Crack Pipes and Free Needles

Originally published at Substack

Every well-intended public policy taken to an extreme leads to misery and dysfunction. A case in point is the Washington Free Beacon story on $30 million grant for “safe smoking” kits. According to the story, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said the kits would include pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the story “inaccurate.” I think this sort of program has been operating under the radar for a while, but many informed people, even in government, just didn’t know it. And when they found out, they didn’t want to know it.

Take “needle exchange” — a program that has been around for decades that originally was sold as a means of preventing the spread of HIV among drug users who shared needles.

I went to such a clinic in 1997. As I wrote at the time,

SAN FRANCISCO didn’t have any reported cases of pediatric AIDS in 1995 or 1996. Pat Christen, Executive Director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation credits two factors: the city’s aggressive drug treatment of pregnant women with HIV and the local needle exchange program.

The one-for-one dirty-for-clean exchange program is subsidized with city dollars, although a violation of state and federal laws. It also may be the reason New York drug injectors have twice the rate of HIV as in San Francisco.

There were other benefits to the program. Addicts received medical attention for sores and illnesses.

Also, users gathered used needles in order to exchange them for free clean needles. That is, there was a benefit for non-users as the exchange served to reduce the prevalence of used needles on city streets.

Nearly two decades later, I learned San Francisco, like other progressive cities, had switched from “needle exchange” to “syringe access.”

I asked around and found out where I could go to get a free “starter” kit for needle exchange. As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, the kit included 20 needles, plastic ties to make veins pop out, bottle caps to cook the drug, alcohol wipes, cotton swabs and a disposal device in a discrete brown paper bag.

San Francisco is Needle City

When people told me in 1997 that needle exchange would encourage drug use, I argued that the exchange program didn’t encourage drug use, it encouraged safer drug use.

But the very phrase “starter” kit says it all.

When addicts have little incentive to pick up their used needles, they make a city less safe for people who aren’t users. I heard from readers who accidently stepped on needles as they went about their business. They had to seek medical treatment — and live with the fear of what they might have contracted.

Here’s another irony. When needle exchanges began, it was illegal to buy syringes without a prescription — which encouraged needle re-use. But then California changed the law in 2014. So “syringe access” meant free needles for people who could buy them.

More on what White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during Wednesday’s briefing:

Q    Thanks, Jen.  HHS just put out a statement clarifying around some reports that crack pipes are not going to be part of the “safe smoking kits” that are funded by the administration.  But can you clarify for us: Were they never a part of the kit or were they removed in response to this reporting and this pushback?  Just — the language was unclear.

MS. PSAKI:  They were never a part of the kit; it was inaccurate reporting.  And we wanted to put out information to make that clear.

Q    So, what is in the safe smoking kit? 

MS. PSAKI:  A safe smoking kit may contain alcohol swabs, lip balm, other materials to promote hygiene and reduce the transmission of disea- — diseases like HIV and hepatitis. 

I would note that what we’re really talking about here is steps that we’re taking as a federal government to address the opioid epidemic, which is killing tens of thousands — if not more — Americans every single day, week, month of the year. 

My translation: The “safe smoking” kits did not explicitly contain pipes.

The Drug Policy Alliance, with which I have agreed over the years on marijuana legalization, is angry at the Biden administration’s back tracking.

Note there is no denial about crack-pipe funding, but only that the funding is not “just for ‘crack pipes.’”

And really, if governments are going to give away free needles, why not free crack pipes?

When you walk in these cities, wear shoes with thick soles.

Debra J. Saunders

Fellow, Chapman Center for Citizenship Leadership
A fellow with Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership, Debra J. Saunders worked for more than thirty years covering politics on the ground and in Washington, as well as American culture, the news media, the criminal justice system, and dubious trends in public schools and prestigious universities. Her column is nationally syndicated with Creators Syndicate.