Just last night, around 6:45 p.m. CST, I read something on social media about a politician who’d been talking about crack pipes. “Wait — what?“, I thought, wondering what kind of politician would go public referencing “crack pipes” — even Rob Ford didn’t utter “crack pipe” in his 2013 apology following the late politician’s infamous video scandal.
Following a quick Google search for “politician crack pipe news,” I was nothing short of surprised and immeasurably disappointed to learn that Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., was actively criticizing the U.S. government by way of the Department of Health and Human Services for finally — after 30-odd years of desperate pleas from harm reductionists whose advocacy efforts started before I was even born — offering federal support for harm reduction programs.
She wasn’t just criticizing — she drummed up a full-fledged crack pipe conspiracy.
Why she chose to wait three months to speak out after SAMHSA announced its Harm Reduction Program Grant, I’ll never know (SAMHSA’s press release was published to HHS.gov on Dec. 8, long before Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee’s senior senator, penned an open letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra yesterday, on Feb. 8). After all, I’m just a humble — does “humble” go out the window if I remind you we serve the state’s most underserved region: the entirety of rural West Tennessee? — overworked, unfunded harm reduction program director in Marsha’s home state… What do I know about unnecessarily creating hysteria, anyways?
At least we got some memes out of it…
On a More Serious Note…
As a lifelong resident of Tennessee, I’m used to the Volunteer State’s long history of backward-thinking policies. As an active harm reductionist here in rural West Tennessee, I’m more than familiar with the anti-drug views that dominate the state. And in running this website, unarguably the state’s leading resource on all things harm reduction, I’ve grown all too familiar with Tennessee’s seemingly unbreakable relationship with news reports and media mentions that mischaracterize, spread misinformation, and manufacture baseless, stigmatizing claims about drugs and the people who use them.
Take the following debacle for example:
On Nov. 30, Knoxville-based ABC affiliate WATE published a report online that chronicled a student’s arrest for fentanyl possession, which was immediately followed by campus-wide hysteria. News initially spread that the student’s “vape pen was laced with fentanyl” — this misinformation came directly from Monroe County Sheriff’s Department chief deputy Chris Smith — not considering that the destruction point of fentanyl is far, far too low to survive such high temperatures. Further, evidence shows that law enforcement officers widely suffer a lack of education about fentanyl and routinely believe “faulty or dubious sources of information about it.”
Despite not experiencing any symptoms of opioid overdose, three school employees —two SROs and a nurse — were administered naloxone. None of them ingested, sniffed, or otherwise inadvertently used the fentanyl in question, making naloxone administration unnecessary. The American College of Medical Toxicology, the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, and the CDC’s National Occupational Safety and Health have all found zero evidence to support the idea that opioid overdose can result from incidental skin contact with fentanyl.
School officials were so hilariously misinformed about fentanyl — owing no thanks to our state’s local news outlets — they responded to the incident by sending students home for the day, then shutting Sequoyah High School down for the following two days so a team of law enforcement officers from the Tenth Judicial District Drug Task Force could clean the school of alleged fentanyl residue. Let’s not forget they went as far as coordinating outfits, donning metallic gray hazmat suits, full face respirators, oxygen tanks, and who-knows-what-else, measures that were undoubtedly excessive.
(Picture courtesy of the Tenth Judicial District’s D.A.)
Over the two-day break, school officials said teachers would “receive support” and be trained to detect signs of drug use in students. They also said drug dogs would be brought in regularly in the coming weeks and months to fight the school’s alleged drug problem.
School officials were praised for their efforts by the Tenth Judicial District’s Attorney General Stephen Crump: “Public safety work takes many forms. Great work by [the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Drug and Violent Crime Task Force] in keeping students safe.”
Over the following days, at least a dozen local news outlets — the majority based in Tennessee — echoed WATE’s report. Non-news media outlets such as Complex, iHeart, and Campus Security & Life Safety picked it up in the days following the initial report. Every report was rife with misinformation.
Blackburn’s Critique and the Sequoyah High School Debacle Share Several Similarities
Despite these two items being quite different in nature — to start, one was an event, the other’s a letter — Blackburn’s letter is much like the aforementioned farce of a situation:
- Both led to a chain reaction of media stories.
- Both spread misinformation, solidified stigma against people who use drugs, and ultimately made it worse to be a Tennessean who uses drugs.
- Both fail to use evidence-based research to support their actions and messaging.
And, of course the senior Tennessee senator had to make misleading social media posts…
Blackburn’s Backward-Thinking Letter Sucks for Several Reasons
Oh, by the way, I’m not saying it sucks just to levy a personal attack against Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn — I seriously dislike ad hominem, just as we all should. Below is a several-point explanation of my critique of Blackburn’s open letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra:
Note: Read the letter yourself by following the hyperlink above. Each subhead correlates with an issue I find with Blackburn’s correspondence.
#1. Funding for SAMHSA’s Harm Reduction Grant Is Such a Tiny, Tiny Share of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Discretionary Budget Authority
In the first paragraph, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn brings up the “nearly $30 million in ‘harm reduction grants,'” immediately thereafter mentioning $6 trillion “in funding under the guise of COVID relief.
For fiscal year 2022 — which runs from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022 — the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget is about $1.7 trillion. A big chunk ($1.5 trillion) is already spent and goes to stuff like Medicare and Medicaid — non-negotiables. What’s left for the department’s discretionary budget authority (meaning this money isn’t already spent, allowing HHS decision-makers to determine how to spend it) is $131.8 billion — do you know how insignificant $30 million is when compared to $131.8 billion?
$30 million is 0.023% of HHS’s discretionary budget authority for the current fiscal year — which, again, is $131.8 billion. Why is Marsha making such a big deal about such little money, relatively speaking?
Oh yeah — and it’s kinda funny for a senator representing one of the worst states for COVID infections and deaths to be complaining about how there wasn’t enough funding allocated to fighting the pandemic. I digress.
#2. Government-Funded Drug Paraphernalia Is Nothing Like a “Slap in the Face”…
Government-funded drug paraphernalia is a slap in the face to the communities and first responders fighting against drugs flowing into our country from a wide-open southern border.Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Whether we call them pieces of drug paraphernalia, safe drug use supplies, or harm reduction supplies, drug users deserve to have steady access to these items — irrespective of any benefits they offer. I personally share this belief, as do most harm reductionists.
Let’s get into some benefits — and, for brevity’s sake, I’ll only be providing evidence-backed benefits of syringe access for people who use drugs:
Syringe access reduces the likelihood of blood-borne disease transmission. Injection drug use is the number-one means of hepatitis C transmission and has been for decades. Per HHS statistics, HCV infects roughly 3.5 million Americans. Per participant, rural syringe services program operation costs average just $700 per year, says a 2019 study. Hepatitis C treatment without insurance runs anywhere from $54,000 to $95,000. In 2014, Medicare spent $4.5 billion on a single HCV treatment (Sovaldi) alone.
Several risky behaviors are known to cause HIV. Sharing syringes is the second-most-risky behavior, just behind receptive anal sex. The CDC estimates that HIV-negative people have a one-in-160 chance of catching HIV every time they use a syringe that’s been used by someone with HIV. Unlike HCV, HIV can’t be treated with a one-time treatment. Rather, HIV treatment lasts a lifetime. A 2019 study estimated average lifetime HIV treatment costs between $420,285 and $1,079,999.
Oh yeah, and speaking of a “slap in the face,” Marsha Blackburn’s misleading people to believe that “government-funded drug paraphernalia” is a bad investment sure feels like a slap in the face.
#3. … to the “Communities and First Responders Fighting against Drugs Flowing Into Our Country”
Despite over 100 years of our country’s war against drugs, drug overdose deaths reached an all-time high in 2020 —well, technically between May 2020 and April 2021 — surpassing 100,000 per annum for the first time in our nation’s history.
Marsha must be blind to think fighting drugs is getting us anywhere.
Anyways, I’d pick more than one piece of evidence to back up my assertion, but considering Marsha backed up her claims with an opinion piece, it’s clear I’ve already got her beat.
#4. Ironically Enough, Ms. Marsha Doesn’t Like Backing Up Her Claims With Evidence
One reason I take such issue with Blackburn’s speaking out against SAMHSA’s modest harm reduction grant is because she backs up her anti-drug claims with absolutely zero evidence.
Let’s take a peek at the four references her HHS letter lists:
- SAMHSA’s HR grant announcement,
- An opinion piece by Fox News,
- The grant’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) — courtesy of SAMHSA,
- A post by the Washington Free Beacon, which holds a strong right-leaning bias and ended its post with an obvious jab intended to fire up readers: “President Biden’s son Hunter is a longtime user of crack cocaine.”
#5. Senator Blackburn Obviously Didn’t Read the NOFO…
… or any other part of the grant, apparently. Why else would she ask HHS Secretary Becerra to “explain the requirements for entities to be eligible for this grant program”?
Y’know how we often read an article’s headline, not even bothering to open the article — let alone read it — and think we’ve actually learned something? One 2016 study found that some 60% of people surveyed would retweet news without reading it first, instead skimming the headline and thinking it’s a suitable replacement for reading the article.
The supporting documents for SAMHSA’s harm reduction grant collectively amount to many dozens of pages, offering readers everything they could possibly hope to learn about the funding opportunity. These documents more than answered Blackburn’s question — I would know because, even though I wasn’t going to apply for the funding myself, I still read much of those documents.
To be fair, I understand politicians have tons of shit to read. When it comes to supporting something as discriminatory and wide-reaching as the war on drugs, though… It’s appalling to think Ms. Marsha must not have even cracked one page of the documents explaining the details of SAMHSA’s harm reduction grant.
Ultimately, Blackburn’s letter is yet another continuance of Tennessee’s never-ending support for the drug war. Yet another action that makes it that much worse to be a drug user in Tennessee.
Yet another day I feel unsafe to be myself in the Volunteer State.
An Update: Hooray!
On Feb. 15, just days after Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn spoke out against the “crack pipe” bill, Blackburn took back her threat to “slow-walk” a short-term spending bill that would’ve excluded funding for SAMHSA’s Harm Reduction Grant Program. Since all this happened in a span of five days — not to mention the fact Blackburn waited three full months after SAMHSA announced the funding opportunity — it seems as if Blackburn’s unduly-ardent rhetoric against the Harm Reduction Grant Program was nothing more than a ruse to slam people who use drugs, further stigmatizing one of the most-stigmatized groups in the Volunteer State.