Overdose deaths are so high that the Biden team is embracing ideas once seen as taboo HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told NPR the U.S. has to do more to help people using illegal drugs survive. "If we want to keep people alive we've got to try everything the evidence says might work."

Overdose deaths are so high that the Biden team is embracing ideas once seen as taboo

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1049245787/1049797113" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The Biden administration has unveiled a major shift in the way it plans to help people with drug addictions stay alive. This comes as overdoses have surged, causing roughly 100,000 deaths in a single year. The new plan focuses on what's known as harm reduction. That means providing support and care for people while they're still actively using drugs. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Xavier Becerra talks about America's addiction crisis, the Health and Human Services secretary says the fight is radically different now than it was just a year ago.

XAVIER BECERRA: Drug overdose and death has reached a point where we can't wait.

MANN: Becerra says the pandemic and the spread of the synthetic opioid fentanyl made use of all street drugs far more deadly. So he says the federal government will now directly support ideas known broadly as harm reduction. That means backing clean syringe exchange programs and providing fentanyl test strips to help active drug users identify contaminated street drugs.

BECERRA: We are literally trying to give users a lifeline. We're willing to go to places where our opinion and our tendencies have not allowed us to go.

MANN: In an interview with NPR, Becerra suggested his department might be open to one of the most controversial harm reduction ideas - creation of safe consumption sites. Those are locations proposed in New York City, Philadelphia and other communities where people might use illegal drugs under some kind of supervision to minimize the risk of overdose.

BECERRA: We're not going to say, but you can't do these other types of supervised consumption programs that you show - you think work or that evidence shows work.

MANN: But in a statement sent to NPR, an HHS spokesperson walked back Becerra's comment, saying the agency wasn't endorsing supervised drug use sites. Authority for allowing that kind of program would lie with the Justice Department. Supervised drug use sites have never been approved in the U.S., but many other harm reduction strategies have been in place on a small scale around the country for years, often operated by grassroots groups or by local governments. There's data suggesting they work, lowering death rates, but the programs often face pushback from law enforcement and local leaders.

In states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, there's pressure to close down or restrict the very harm reduction programs Becerra is advocating for. He says his department will now work to build support for harm reduction.

BECERRA: If we want to keep people alive, we've got to try everything that the evidence says might work. Will this solve the problem? It's going to be tough, but we need to get state and local partner buy-in.

MANN: Ryan Hampton, an activist who's been in recovery from opioid addiction for seven years, says programs like the ones proposed today might have kept him safer.

RYAN HAMPTON: I entered recovery with all sorts of health care problems, including hepatitis, because I didn't have access to clean needles.

MANN: Hampton says harm reduction is needed even more now because of the spread of fentanyl. Kassandra Frederique with the Drug Policy Alliance also praised this policy shift. But she pointed out that while this plan aims to help active drug users, under the law, they're still viewed as criminals. Frederique says it's important for the Biden administration to address that contradiction, especially for people of color with addiction who need help but fear arrest and incarceration.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: It's about them removing the barriers and the foot that is on the necks of the people that use drugs and their family members.

MANN: One final question about this plan centers on money. The Biden administration wants more than $11 billion for the Health and Human Services budget for its drug response. It's unclear whether Congress will agree to that kind of funding. Brian Mann, NPR News.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.