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Government funding for harm reduction projects is not about reducing harm

Government funding for harm reduction projects is not about reducing harm

Niklas Kleinworth
September 28, 2023
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September 28, 2023

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is struggling to redirect federal funds from woke nonprofits to people who would actually benefit. 

This funding debacle is delaying community access to Narcan — a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses — and caused a stir in the media this week. But the debate over publicly funding harm reduction programs runs deeper than Narcan distribution.

House Bill 350 of this year’s legislative session redirected more than $19 million in federal grants from harm reduction programs to first responders. But nearly six months after the bill passed, the state health department still has not found a way to distribute the funds.

Before HB 350 took effect, efforts to distribute Narcan were funded through the Idaho Harm Reduction Project ー a nonprofit needle exchange and “safe” injection advocacy group. This meant many first responder agencies and community groups had to go through the nonprofit to obtain free Narcan. But now the IHRP is out of the picture, and the department has failed to distribute Narcan, or funding for its purchase, leaving local, fire, EMS, and police agencies out of luck.

Why were local government agencies ever required to go through an obscure Boise nonprofit to get medication? 

Though the Idaho Harm Reduction Project will give Narcan to anyone, it focuses its efforts on illicit drug users. It’s unclear which populations would most effectively deploy Narcan in an emergency ー whether it is users, peers, families, or the general public ー but studies suggest that possessing Narcan could increase risky behavior among those abusing drugs. This means that distributing Narcan to those tangential to drug abuse ー families, first responders, businesses, hotels, homeless shelters, and treatment centers ー might be a more effective solution than distributing it directly to users.

First responder agencies are often operated by residents of their own communities and tend to know the people they serve — particularly in Idaho’s small-town culture. Any police, fire, or EMS agency, by its nature, goes into the community to educate and provide resources. They are a face people recognize and trust. This makes first responders well-equipped to connect with community partners to educate and distribute products like Narcan. 

The Idaho Harm Reduction project does not share these qualities. Nonetheless, it received nearly $1.8 million in grant funding last fiscal year, making the taxpayers the organization’s top donor. In fact, 94% of its budget came from government funds in the 2022 fiscal year.

This funding supports the IHRP’s programs of providing free needles, drug paraphernalia, condoms, HIV testing, and Narcan for at-risk populations, including drug users and sex workers. However, the organization is also well known for promoting woke causes like paying more than $18,000 for sponsorships at the Boise Pride Festival and providing free needles for transgender hormone injections.

Harm reduction programs have a serious flaw: they do little to actually reduce harm because they falsely promise an avenue for “safe” drug abuse. Many programs provide free needles and drug paraphernalia on the premise that they are a means to get people to enter rehab. The most recent data from the state health department shows that Idaho participants in harm reduction programs received more than 1,500 referrals to treatment centers. But this tells us very little about whether harm reduction programs are successful in getting people into treatment, as no data exists on how often that happens in Idaho.

Harm reduction programs seem to suffer from the same disease as most government programs: they market themselves as the solution, but they only mask the ugly effects of the problem. Often, they even perpetuate the problem.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is at odds with the goals of the Legislature. Lawmakers defunded the harm reduction program in favor of providing grants to first responders. In doing so, they made a stand against the very policies that led to the destruction of Idaho’s western neighbors in California, Washington, and Oregon. Yet, the IDHW fails to support first responders while repurposing other grants to continue supporting harm reduction programs anyway.

Though the operations of the Idaho Harm Reduction Project are legal, there is no mandate for taxpayers to foot the bill. Should members of the community find the program valuable enough, they would contribute to the charity. But this is not the case, given that nearly all its funds come from government subsidies.

Legislators should not use public funds to subsidize illicit drug use in our state, and should instead redirect some of those funds to agencies working to protect lives. By funding the Idaho Harm Reduction Project, the IDHW ignores the root of the problem and works to support the very programs many Idahoans fled in other states. 

In all, our state health department fails to emphasize real solutions while it supports its own agenda — harming our neighbors, families, and state.

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