Could handing out free crack pipes help roll back the spread of HIV? The San Francisco HIV Prevention Planning Council (HPPC) insists that it could and that crack pipe distribution programs in Canada are doing just that.
“San Francisco has a long history of being at the cutting edge of things that we have turned out to be very right on… and I would like to see this one be another of those things that we were right about before the rest of the country catches on,” says Laura Thomas, HPPC representative.
The HIV community activist admits that this “great program” of offering fresh pipes to crack addicts may seem “counter intuitive.” She points out, however, that unlike dirty hypodermic needles, crack pipes don’t transmit HIV. Thomas explains, “Once you can bring people into your program, make them feel respected, taken care of, then they’re more likely to come back and get on HIV meds and want to be engaged and taking care of their health.”
Not quite ready to give the go-ahead to the new program, Tracey Packer, who oversees the city’s HIV prevention efforts for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, commented that San Francisco may explore the idea. “It is inaccurate to say we are ‘considering’ the program,” Packer said. “We are at the exploration point. We are looking at data and information.”
Harmeet K. Dhillon, chair of the San Francisco Republican Party, expressed disapproval of Thomas’s proposal, calling it the “utmost of San Francisco absurdity.” Dhillon considers the plan naive, not productive, and “a scourge on the most vulnerable populations in our city.” He contends that the distribution program simply acts as an enabling device and that “there is zero evidence showing that handing out ‘clean’ crack pipes to addicts will do anything to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases.” He added, “This just sounds like another pathetic idea to entertain viewers of ‘The Daily Show.'”
Republicans were not the only ones deriding the program. A spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco provided a statement: “Mayor Lee is not aware of this exploration and is not supportive. There are many other HIV interventions that could and should be explored before ever considering this.”
Moreover, Barbara Garcia, Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said in a phone call to KPIX 5 that if the recommendation to implement the plan comes to her, she “would say absolutely no.” She asserted, “We are not going to distribute crack pipes. We have a lot of things to consider for those who are using crack for improving their health. And the distribution of crack pipes is not something I’m going to consider.”