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Darren Willett, PhD | Director Center for Harm Reduction. Documenting programs at the Center for Harm Reduction on skid row, including needle exchange (photos of employees only), work program, and people visiting the space.

Source: Al Seib / Getty

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse prevention released a grant application in December for organizations involved in harm reduction. The Harm Reduction Program Grant supports community-based programs geared toward overdose prevention, syringe services programs and other harm reduction services.

But several media outlets latched onto a distortion of a federal harm reduction program meant to address persisting inequalities. Instead of taking a moment to do basic research on harm reduction efforts, outlets ran with sensationalized headlines of the Biden administration funding crack pipes and syringes for racial equity.

It’s possible some grantees could provide safe smoking kits/supplies as a part of their harm reduction work. As Snopes noted, safe smoking kits are nestled in a sub-list of 12 examples of “equipment and supplies to enhance harm reduction efforts.” And the entire category of equipment and supplies, including the safe smoking kits, is one of eight areas funds could be used.  

Other measures included medication lockboxes, safe sex kits including condoms and PrEP, and hepatitis A and B vaccination services. The grant announcement outlined the uses for potential funding. (Read the complete grant announcement here). 

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.

Other possible uses of grant funds included overdose prevention education and distributing FDA-approved overdose reversal medication. According to the prospective applicant webinar, grantees would be required to submit quarterly reports on a variety of metrics including the number of people provided referrals for support services and evidence-based interventions at the community level.

Evidence-based means there is documented research evidence and proof that the intervention works. Other countries are far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to harm reduction and substance abuse.

Whether people realize it or not, spreading this kind of health misinformation prevents communities from learning about possible help to address substance abuse issues or prevent overdose. Claims that the Biden administration is handing out crack pipes make for good clicks, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.

And with recent high-profile overdoses, like the tragic passing of actor Michael K. Williams,  it seems like people would want to have good information about creating healthier alternatives that don’t default to criminalization.

Also, the Biden administration has committed to addressing racial equity across the entirety of the federal government to remedy historic inequality. And that extends to addressing the overdose epidemic. Evidence-based treatment exists but is often unavailable to many communities.  

In a Twitter thread, Sheila Vakharia, Ph.D., MSW, the deputy director of Research and Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, explained how harm reduction works and why it is a racial equity issue. Vakharia also said that distributing “smoking equipment is actually a health & racial equity issue sine BIPOC communities are disproportionately dying of these overdoses and need programs to meet them where they are at to give them the tool to stay alive and safe.” 

Vakharia notes that investing in health alternatives and providing support for people in the community is essential to addressing substance use issues. A January 2022 analysis from Pew Research showed that Black men had been hit hard by the overdose crisis.

The rate of overdose among Black men tripled between 2015 and 2020. American Indian and Alaskan Native men are the next highest group. Among women, Black women had a sharp increase in overdose rate, but American Indian and Alaskan Native women surpassed all other groups of women. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced the grant program in early December 2021, noting funds were authorized by the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden earlier in the year.

“With overdose deaths exceeding 100,000 over a 12-month period for the first time, this funding opportunity will provide support to those working in their communities to reduce the harms of drug use,” read the announcement. “Providing funding and support for innovative harm reduction services is in line with the Biden-Harris Administration’s ongoing efforts to address the overdose epidemic and is a key pillar for the first time in the multi-faceted Health and Human Services’ overdose prevention strategy announced in October.”

Watch the Drug Policy Alliance’s “Harm Reduction 101” video below:

[embedded content]


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