Liberal outlets, fact-checkers go to war over Free Beacon report on Biden funding ‘crack pipe’ distribution

The White House and its allies in the mainstream media and Big Tech are disputing a report that a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grant program would fund distribution of crack pipes through safe “smoking kits” to help advance racial equity.

President Biden was widely criticized by conservatives following the Washington Free Beacon’s Monday story that the administration would fund the distribution of crack pipes through a $30 million HHS grant program that reimburses local governments and entities that provide safe “smoking kits,” in the name of advancing racial equity and safer drug use for addicts. The grant specifically denotes “smoking kits/supplies” as among equipment to enhance “harm reduction efforts.”

The Free Beacon cited a HHS spokesperson who told the outlet the smoking kits would provide users with the ability to smoke “any illicit substance,” including crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine. The story also noted existing smoking kit programs in cities such as San Francisco, Annapolis, and Seattle all include smoking pipes. 

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The story went viral, and in the days since, Snopes, PolitiFact, the Washington Post, New York Times, Facebook, Salon, the Daily Beast and others have rushed to Biden’s defense, publishing stories and “fact checks” disputing the Free Beacon report. The outlets mirrored talking points from White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who dismissed it as “misinformation,” and an HHS spokesman who said the story was “blatant misinformation.”

President Biden was widely criticized by conservatives following the Washington Free Beacon’s bombshell Monday report  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Biden was widely criticized by conservatives following the Washington Free Beacon’s bombshell Monday report  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

But on Wednesday, in response to the tumult, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Dr. Rahul Gupta said the administration was “focused on using our resources smartly to reduce harm and save lives. Accordingly, no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”

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The Washington Post’s own Glenn Kessler pointed to the carefully worded statement from Becerra and Gupta as offering “no suggestion that the original reporting on crack pipes was wrong.”

In correspondence reviewed by Fox News Digital, reporter Patrick Hauf specifically asked spokesman Christopher Garrett if the kits were “intended to help users reduce risk when smoking crack and meth.”

“I wouldn’t limit to those two substances. It would reference any illicit substance,” Garrett replied.

However, the left-wing fact-checking outlet Snopes initially ruled the claim that pipes would be included in federally funded smoking kits “mostly false” before changing to “outdated” because of the HHS statement.

“This newly-stipulated detail was not originally available, meaning the assertions made in a first wave of coverage had become outdated,” Snopes explained. 

It was unclear what that meant.

“It’s true that the grant description required the provision of harm reduction supplies, and listed ‘safe smoking kits’ as an example — an established component of harm reduction strategy — but in reality, those kits constituted just one of several sub-components of an even longer list of requirements for grant recipients,” Snopes wrote.

Journalist Nellie Bowles mocked the fact check as “hilarious,” noting it hadn’t rejected the story’s findings but rather downplayed them. 

Snopes continued to go to bat for Biden, claiming disapproving coverage of the smoking kits stemmed from news outlets simply looking to put the term “crack pipes” in a headline. 

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said "no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits." (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP, File)

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.” (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP, File)
((Shawn Thew/Pool via AP, File)

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The Washington Post took a similar path with a headline, “No, the federal government isn’t spending $30 million on ‘crack pipes,’” which indicated Republicans had “seized” on the crack pipe report. It also incorrectly suggested the Free Beacon’s original report had suggested all $30 million was being spent on crack pipes; the story stated the pipes were part of the grant program.

“It’s really disappointing that Republicans are trying to win political points by putting lives at risk and creating misinformation about harm reduction,” Jamie Favaro, who is looking to use the grant to distribute clean syringes to drug addicts, told the paper. 

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The Post then admitted “safe smoking kits” would be distributed as part of the grant, but claimed such kits “typically don’t include a glass pipe as it is expensive relative to providing the rubber mouthpiece” that serves as an accessory for crack pipes. 

Free Beacon editor-in-chief Eliana Johnson mocked the Post, tweeting the words “typically don’t” were doing a lot of heavy lifting in the “absurd” fact check. 

Hauf also pointed to the Drug Policy Alliance reacting with outrage at the HHS’ announcement about no longer putting pipes in safe smoking kits. It “appears to have been under the impression that the HHS program would provide crack pipes,” he noted.

PolitiFact also rated the story “Mostly False,” in the form of fact-checking a tweet by Sean Spicer that said the Biden administration was “spending $30 million on crack pipes,” although that wasn’t what the original Free Beacon story stipulated.

The Daily Beast called the story “false” and declared fact-checkers had “laid it to rest.” It also called it a “lie” that “rocketed around conservative media.” Yet in the Daily Beast’s own story, it linked to non-governmental organization Harm Reduction International’s list of typical items in smoking kits, which included “glass stems.”

“Conservatives criticize such programs as fueling substance abuse. But activists and many public health experts say these sorts of programs provide a significant degree of safety and support to vulnerable people,” the Daily Beast reported. “While HHS declined to specify any elements of smoking kits that may qualify, non-governmental organization Harm Reduction International lists some typical items, including brass screen filters, rubber mouthpieces to limit burning, lip balm, and disinfectant wipes.”

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The Daily Beast neglected to include “glass stems” as one of the things on the NGO’s list.

“The distribution of safer smoking kits (which can include glass stems, rubber mouthpieces, brass screens, lip balm and disinfectant wipes) aims to engage people who smoke drugs with harm reduction and health services and to reduce health complications caused by unsafe equipment,” the group’s 2019 briefing paper says.

The Washington Post story linked to the same list from Harm Reduction International and also didn’t include glass stems in its summary to readers.

“Typically, such kits include a rubber mouthpiece to prevent cuts and burns, brass screens to filter contaminants and disinfectant wipes, according to Harm Reduction International,” the Post reported.

The New York Times did note Harm Reduction International’s inclusion of glass stems in its fact-check, which called the Free Beacon story “misleading.”

“The department did not respond when asked by The New York Times if glass pipes were ever allowable under the grant provisions,” the Times acknowledged.

“HHS did not answer a question from The Washington Post about whether the kits could include glass stems,” the Post acknowledged.

Facebook has slapped the story with a fact-check that says it’s partly false when shared on the social media platform, and Salon declared Biden was “not really” handing out crack pipes.

“This entire claim is at best a ludicrous oversimplification,” Salon wrote, downplaying the significance of Biden’s crack-pipe accessories such as mouthpieces.

A pipe for crack cocaine use, a needle for heroin use and a pipe for methamphetamine use are shown at the People's Harm Reduction Alliance, the nation's largest needle-exchange program, in Seattle, Washington. (SEATTLE REUTERS/David Ryder

A pipe for crack cocaine use, a needle for heroin use and a pipe for methamphetamine use are shown at the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, the nation’s largest needle-exchange program, in Seattle, Washington. (SEATTLE REUTERS/David Ryder
(Picture taken April 30, 2015. To match Feature USA-DRUGS/SEATTLE REUTERS/David Ryder)

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“It’s this relatively minor provision within a much larger program that provoked conservatives into spinning Biden’s entire plan as a massive crack-pipe giveaway. To be even clearer, no actual crack pipes will be given away, and the rubber mouthpieces are one small piece of a plan intended to save lives and reduce the public-health consequences of drug addiction,” Salon wrote. 

Hauf has since covered the Biden’s administration’s denial and indicated the HHS refused to explain what he got wrong. 

“After publication of a report on the funding, HHS backtracked in a Tuesday statement that labeled the story ‘blatant misinformation.’ When asked to explain what part of the story was incorrect, a spokesman said the story is ‘misleading and misinformed’ but declined to provide any information to refute the report,” Hauf wrote. 

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Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has given the HHS until March 1 to clarify whether the Biden administration is, in fact, authorizing the distribution of drug paraphernalia.

“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,” Blackburn wrote. “If this is the president’s plan to address drug abuse, our nation is in serious trouble.”

Fox News Digital has reached out to HHS for comment.

Fox News’ Brandon Gillespie and Sam Dorman contributed to this report. 

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