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Fact-checker tries to protect Biden over crack pipe story — but fails spectacularly

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Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Snopes, a prominent fact-checking outlet, investigated controversial claims that the Biden administration will use federal money to fund the distribution of glass pipes commonly used to smoke drugs, like crack or meth, and declared the story "mostly false."

But in the fact check, Snopes admitted the exact premise of the baffling story is true.

What is the background?

The Washington Free Beacon revealed this week that the Biden administration would soon fund the distribution of pipes used for smoking illicit drugs in marginalized communities under the guise of "advancing racial equity."

Under the Department of Health and Human Services' Harm Reduction Program Grant program, government funds (i.e. taxpayer money) would be distributed to local governments and nonprofit organizations to make drug use safer. Some of the funds would be used on "smoking kits/supplies."

An HHS spokesperson, in fact, told the Free Beacon the kits would provide glass pipes that drug addicts use to smoke crack, crystal methamphetamine, and "any illicit substance." The Free Beacon added, "HHS said the kits aim to reduce the risk of infection when smoking substances with glass pipes, which can lead to infections through cuts and sores."

What did Snopes say?

The fact-checking org claimed the story was "mostly false" because the story highlighted the distribution of drug-smoking pipes and neglected other aspects of the HHS's harm reduction program.

Not only did Snopes admit that "smoking kits" would be distributed to drug users under the program, but Snopes admitted that advancing racial equity is part of the program's purpose.

Snopes explained:

What's True:
In 2022, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services substance abuse harm reduction grant did require recipients to provide safer smoking kits to existing drug users. In distributing grants, priority would be given to applicants serving historically underserved communities. However...

What's False:
This was just one of around 20 components of the grant program and far from its most prominent or important one, despite being the primary focus of outraged news reports. The purpose of the program was to reduce harm and the risk of infection among drug users, not to advance racial equity, although that was a secondary consideration.

Snopes, therefore, rated the claims "mostly false" because the stories emphasized aspects of the HHS program that painted President Joe Biden negatively — not that they were actually false.

How did the Biden administration respond?

After the story generated backlash, the HHS — despite previously confirming the story — called the story "blatant misinformation." White House press secretary Jen Psaki also characterized it as "inaccurate reporting."

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra then released a statement saying federal money would not fund drug pipes.

"No federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits," Becerra said Wednesday in a joint statement with White House drug policy adviser Rahul Gupta.

Despite condemning the story as untrue, the HHS has "declined to provide any information to refute the report," the Free Beacon reported.

Anything else?

In light of Becerra's statement, Scopes updated its fact check to "outdated."

"After a wave of grossly misleading news coverage in February 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stipulated that federal funding would not be used to include pipes in safe smoking kits, as part of a substance abuse harm reduction grant program. This newly-stipulated detail was not originally available, meaning the assertions made in a first wave of coverage had become outdated," Snopes explained.

Interestingly, Becerra's statement did not dispute whether drug pipes would have originally been funded; it said only that drug pipes would not be funded moving forward.

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