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Last week, media headlines read “Biden hands out free crack pipes” in response to funding set aside for harm reduction efforts. Now, one week later, two federal bills have been introduced that would block this funding, and with it, vital work to combat the addiction and overdose crisis.

Using “crack pipes” is the latest in a familiar history of stigmatizing and alienating those who use drugs. Given the history of disproportionate sentencing for crack vs. cocaine, the term specifically targets black and brown people with substance use disorders (SUDs). In the middle of Black History Month and a time where Black men are dying from overdoses faster than any other demographic, the term becomes more than just a tool to fan the flames of bipartisan politics. It dehumanizes those who suffer from SUDs, especially people of color.

Rubio and Manchin’s new bill aims to block government spending on harm reduction initiatives, which have been proven to save lives and prevent overdoses [1]. This most recent policy maneuver is like many we’ve seen before; it preys upon those with SUDs and misses the forest for the trees. It is lazy policymaking that puts people who most need help in a position of justifying themselves. It diverts our attention from real policy solutions that offer ways forward out of the addiction crisis.

These approaches increase barriers for people to get support during a time when people need help more than ever before. It tells us that people who suffer from addiction are expendable in the bipartisan politics games at play. What is the expendable number of future lives lost that are “worth it” in this political calculation? This is a dangerous “spin” and we should be able to expect better from our leaders.

Harm reduction isn’t a cure-all. It’s part of a comprehensive strategy to help those suffering right now and make sure they don’t die while policymakers argue over what to do. It includes access to overdose-reversal kits, safe syringes to limit the spread of HIV and other infectious diseases, and safe smoking kits.

APNC is currently in the midst of hosting our Tipping the Pain Scale events, which highlight the new film from the filmmakers of The Anonymous People and Generation Found. It focuses on “the current systemic failures of how we have dealt with addiction in communities and [individuals’ journeys] to develop and employ new, innovative, and often controversial solutions to the problem.” One of these controversial solutions is harm reduction practices.

At last week’s event in Fayetteville, NC, Greg Berry from North Carolina’s Harm Reduction Coalition said,

If someone is injecting drugs, it’s one of the most risky behaviors they can be engaged in. If there’s a way to reduce that to smoking or snorting, it might not look like success to some people, but from a harm reduction standpoint, that’s success. We move someone from a more risky behavior to a less risky behavior…and yeah, we hope that the ultimate goal would be abstinence or recovery, but in the most active part of your addiction, abstinence seems impossible. By moving someone on the continuum in incremental steps, all of a sudden, abstinence or treatment or recovery doesn’t look so far away.

Also of note: this bill comes in response to the grant program before the request for proposals has even been reviewed. Those in support of the bill are using one tiny part of a possible grant program that might have safe smoking kits in them to halt funding that can save lives, and it’s disgraceful. Denying funding for harm reduction is denying the evidence that harm reduction works [2].

As always, we will monitor this proposed bill and the potential available funding and keep you updated.