Supporters of crack pipe exchange ready to forge ahead 

A Tenderloin activist vowed Monday to begin handing out free crack pipes to The City’s hard-drug users in March despite a lack of support from Mayor Ed Lee and public-health officials on such a program as a harm-reduction strategy.

Handing out clean glass pipes to crack users — who comprise as much as 25 percent of San Francisco’s hard-drug users — would cut down on cases of HIV and hepatitis C, according to a presentation given by the HIV Planning and Prevention Council to Department of Public Health officials earlier this month.

Supporters note that The City already doles out about 2.7 million hypodermic needles every year to intravenous drug users through various once-controversial needle-exchange programs, according to DPH data.

Extending the same outreach to crack users would be consistent with the harm-reduction policy — a concept of providing less harmful avenues for risky behavior — and would also make it more likely to bring crack users into treatment, the DPH argues.

Last week, a DPH official initially said the department would collect data and information on the efficacy of a crack pipe exchange.

But on Friday, once news of the suggestion went public, DPH Director Barbara Garcia appeared to dismiss the idea outright, and on Monday a DPH spokeswoman confirmed the agency “does not support” a crack pipe exchange.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Lee did not respond to a request for comment Monday, but told broadcast media last week that the mayor is “not supportive.”

In response, “we decided that we would just begin doing it,” said Isaac Jackson, a Tenderloin resident, drug user, and founder and president of the nascent Urban Survivors Network, a tiny group of drug user advocates.

Jackson declined to identify the source of his funding, but said that his group will begin handing out “25 to 50” new crack pipes at an exchange event during the first week of March.

It is unclear what, if any, penalties Jackson and his group could face. There are state and federal laws outlawing drug paraphernalia that also extend to marijuana-smoking devices which are openly bought and sold in The City. A spokesman for the Police Department did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Needle exchanges began in a similar renegade “just do it” fashion before they were adopted as mainstream public-health policy, noted Shilo Jackson, executive director of the Seattle-based Peoples Harm Reduction Alliance, which began distributing crack pipes in that city in 2010.

Seattle has the U.S.’s only known crack pipe exchange program. Similar programs exist in Vancouver and Ottawa in Canada.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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