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Anne Arundel stops distribution of crack pipes aimed at slowing overdoses in Annapolis after Black community backlash

A photo of a harm reduction kit that included a glass pipe that could be used to smoke crack, fentanyl, meth and other drugs and other supplies. The kits were distributed to Annapolis residents this week by AA Power, a harm-reduction group affiliated with the Anne Arundel Health Department. The group will discontinue distributing the pipes after backlash among the county’s Black community, said Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman.
A photo of a harm reduction kit that included a glass pipe that could be used to smoke crack, fentanyl, meth and other drugs and other supplies. The kits were distributed to Annapolis residents this week by AA Power, a harm-reduction group affiliated with the Anne Arundel Health Department. The group will discontinue distributing the pipes after backlash among the county’s Black community, said Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman. (Photo courtesy of Carl Snowden)

Admitting they “hadn’t put enough thought” into handing out clean crack pipes to slow overdoses and disease spread among drug users in Annapolis, the Anne Arundel County Health Department responded to backlash in the Black community and said it would stop immediately.

The glass pipes were brought to the attention of community leaders by an Eastport Terrace resident, a recovering crack user who has been clean for 17 years, said Carl Snowden, a longtime civil rights activist and convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders.

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Distributing pipes could have “unintended consequences” of tempting former drug users to relapse, said Snowden, who recommended the practice be stopped immediately.

Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, county health officer, confirmed in an email to members of the Caucus on Wednesday that the pipes came from AA Power, a group affiliated with the Health Department that distributes supplies aimed at reducing the potential for harm among people suffering from substance use. It started distributing the glass pipes this week.

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“Honestly, we didn’t put enough thought into the cultural implications of this,” Kalyanaraman said Thursday. “It was more focused technically on harm reduction, and we didn’t take the broader picture into as much consideration as we should have.

“That’s why we are pulling back on that piece of it. The community is in support of the other pieces of it, and we’re going to continue with those.”

Crack first appeared in the United States in the early 1980s. It was cheaper and easier to manufacture than powdered cocaine, which allowed it to spread rapidly throughout the country. Its introduction would eventually be described as an epidemic as it drastically increased both the number of Americans addicted to the drug and subsequent hospital visits for cocaine-related emergencies, according to a history of the period published by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The impact of the drug was particularly hard on Black families living in overcrowded, poor neighborhoods, resulting in high rates of addiction and incarceration.

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AA Power was established 18 months ago to provide education and supplies such as fentanyl test strips and Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug. It also connects people with drug treatment and mental health services.

In the last five months, organizers began to hand out sterile syringes and other drug administration supplies to prevent the spread of disease. Those kits will continue to be distributed.

This week was the first time it handed out the pipes, which could be used to smoke crack, as well as meth and fentanyl, Kalyanaraman said.

The county spent $3,842 on 16 unassembled pipe kits (a box containing 100 each) and another $2,408 for 500 pre-assembled pipes, according to department data.

Alderman DaJuan Gay, D-Ward 6, has been asking for programs aimed at reducing overdoses in the city for more than a year. He applauded news that they were finally reaching the community because “radical approaches” are needed to stem the tide of overdoses since the pandemic began.

But, he said, “I do understand the concern … crack cocaine has not been kind to our community.”

Harsh federal anti-drug laws created what was known as the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine starting in the 1980s. Possession of five grams of crack mandated the same minimum sentence as 500 grams of cocaine.

For decades, young Black men were the ones most often arrested on charges related to crack and received harsher penalties than white people caught with powder cocaine. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing disparity to 18-to-1, but the damage had already been done. As of 2012, 88% of crack cocaine offenders were Black, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.

Memories of that time stick with Kevin Simmons, Annapolis Office of Emergency Management director. He recalled the disastrous effect the drug had on Black communities. Simmons said there were no discussions of distributing glass pipes to Annapolis residents when his department and health officials met last fall to discuss adding syringes to supply kits.

Simmons said when he heard that residents had received pipes, he didn’t believe it.

“That’s nothing I can get behind,” Simmons said. “I’ve seen AA Power in and around the city, mainly in Ward 6, and they seem like they do a very, very good job. ... It’s just that they had this one glitch with the crack pipe, and it was a lack of communication.”

Distributing crack pipes is “a terrible idea” because they are considered drug paraphernalia and thus “perpetuating a criminal act,” said James Spearman, a retired Annapolis police sergeant and member of the Caucus of African American Leaders.

“I think we’re much better served with trying to dissuade people from using crack and trying to get them into treatment and trying to steer them to a positive path,” Spearman said. “I understand the use of syringes when it comes to intravenous drug use because you can slow the spread of HIV and things of that nature, so there is a public health issue that’s being addressed.”

Kalayanaraman said there are health benefits to distributing the pipes, namely slowing the spread of hepatitis C among users. Pipes made from plastic can cut or burn a person’s lip and leave behind trace amounts of blood that spreads the disease between users. Reducing the sharing of drug supplies can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, he said.

Harm reduction has become an increasingly widespread and effective tool against the opioid epidemic. In 2019, the Maryland Department of Health established the Center for Harm Reduction Services to oversee the state’s resources like its syringe and naloxone distribution. There are currently 16 state-approved syringe services programs in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

Some of those do offer safe smoking kits, including Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition.

Thanks to a boost in funding in July, the group began giving out glass pipes and copper wool for use as a filter. The additional supplies were received with jubilation from some Baltimore residents, said Harriet Smith, the coalition’s director of education and acting director of services.

There was a similar reaction when the coalition began offering “safe sniffing” kits, which include straws and a blank ID card that can be used as a clean surface as opposed to surfaces in public, Smith said.

“Folks really don’t want to have to find things on the ground or search out the tools that they might need,” she said. “Honestly, they don’t want to have to share because they know the risks of doing so. And so they’re extremely thankful to receive services beyond the sort of typical syringe distribution that has happened in Baltimore for so long.”

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