The federal government this week announced the kickoff of a three-year, $30 million grant fund devoted to harm reduction programs to help deal with drug addiction.
America is seeing a record number of fatal drug overdoses (nearly 100,000 of them for 2020), and this grant plan is intended to offer financial assistance for programs like needle exchanges, distribution of naloxone kits (which reverse the effects of opioid overdoses), and various ways to connect people with drug addictions to resources that can help them without arresting or jailing them.
The money for the program was included in the American Rescue Plan—passed back in March—a massive $1.9 trillion spending bill that was sold as a COVID-19 response but contained very little that had to do with the epidemic. The bill set aside $4 billion for use for drug addiction programs and mental health treatment.
On Wednesday, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced it was ready to start accepting applications for these grants: "This funding allows organizations to expand their community-based overdose prevention programs in a variety of ways, including distributing overdose-reversal medications and fentanyl test strips, providing overdose education and counseling, and managing or expanding syringe services programs, which help control the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C."
What's not clear from the description on the grant application page is whether a safe consumption site, like the two that recently opened in New York City, could apply and receive funding from this grant. There are more than 120 safe consumption sites elsewhere in the world, but federal drug laws have made them very challenging to open in the United States. Section 856 of the federal Controlled Substances Act forbids knowingly operating a facility for the purpose of allowing people there to use illegal drugs. This part of the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1986 to shut down so-called crack houses, but when Philadelphia attempted in 2019 to allow safe consumption sites to open, a U.S. attorney turned to Section 856 and federal courts to block it.
So, the continued operation of a safe consumption site at the moment depends on the Biden administration and the Department of Justice declining to enforce federal law. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees SAMHSA) did not respond to a request for comment from Reason asking whether safe consumption sites could apply for grants.
While it's a positive development for the Biden administration to approach drug addiction with a response that's not punitive—this is the first federal grant fund of its type—the administration still wants to have it both ways. In a post published by the White House on Wednesday, bragging about the many ways the Biden administration is providing assistance to those with serious drug addiction, the list nevertheless includes tools and funding by which the administration continues to support drug war policing.
In May, for example, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced six more counties as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, meaning more money for law enforcement in attempts to "disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations." The administration's approach to fentanyl-related overdose deaths is to add fentanyl-related substances to Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act.
Both of these above examples also apparently include mechanisms to research harm reduction and treatment beyond just drug war enforcement, but it's important to realize that the Biden administration is still intent on perpetuating the drug war.
And Biden still has not pardoned anybody, not even people with federal nonviolent marijuana convictions. A less punitive path forward is good, but let's not ignore the people left behind.
**UPDATE: Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, responded post-publication that this new grant is a good start, but is disappointingly limited: "DPA is concerned that the [Request for Proposal] indicates that the $30 million will be granted over a three year period (awarding approximately $9-10 million/year) to a maximum of 25 grantees—a number that represents only 6 percent of currently operating syringe services programs—at a time when significantly more funding is needed to both support currently operating programs and expand access to these life-saving services."