Fact check: Did the White House intend to distribute crack pipes as "harm reduction"?

AP Photo/Matt York, File

Answer, from the Washington Post: Possibly, but not necessarily. The Washington Free Beacon erred in reporting that the HHS office responsible for a $30 million grant explicitly confirmed that crack pipes would be included in “smoking kits” for crack and heroin users. However, Glenn Kessler goes on to write, the response from the White House to criticism over the grant makes it sound like the Free Beacon may have hit the mark:

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.

Without excerpting too much, read through Kessler’s details about the e-mail exchanges between the WFB’s Patrick Hauf and Christopher Garrett at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the HHS office responsible for running the grant. Hauf had done research on “safe smoking kits” and found that they routinely included glass pipes, purportedly to prevent disease transmission. (Kudos, by the way, to WFB for full transparency on these e-mails.) Hauf asked Garrett to “specify what these kits are,” and Garrett offered a vague answer about their contents. Garrett did note that the SAMHSA does not provide specific inventory sets in them, only “parameters,” such as compliance with “federal, state, and local laws” and other applicable regulation.

So SAMHSA never did specify that glass pipes would be included in the kits. That’s enough for a Pinocchio or two, right? Well, hold on, because Kessler’s not sure what was going on. Their allies apparently fully expected the kits to contain the glass pipes:

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.”

So it looks as though the crack pipes disappeared only when the WFB reported on their inclusion — even if that was based more on an “assumption,” as Kessler notes. That would comport to Tom Cotton’s assessment this morning:

The lack of clarity from HHS likely gives us a hint as to what was planned for this otherwise-minor grant program. (Thirty million dollars stopped being real money in the Jimmy Carter era.) Moreover, one has to wonder why this program came to Hauf’s attention in the first place. A good reporter develops lots of contacts, and I’d bet that Hauf had a source who knew precisely what the SAMHSA kits would include and gave Hauf a heads-up on it. Perhaps he should have been more explicit in his e-mail to Garrett rather than just assume that glass pipes come in all “safe smoking kits/supplies,” but all of the dodging on this point makes it sound like HHS wasn’t eager to specify what this program would be distributing.

The sudden White House kibosh has had the salutary effect of settling the matter, anyway. We hope.