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Politicians want tougher police action against drug dealers — a move that cost lives

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A growing number of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, are pushing for tougher laws to crack down on drug dealers selling fentanyl and xylazine. But if the goal is to actually help people with substance abuse disorder, then there's a growing body of research that suggests that this get-tough approach could do more harm than good. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is with us now to tell us more. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you to start by reminding us what the stakes are. How big is the problem? I mean, how many people are dying from drug overdoses in the U.S.?

MANN: Yeah, this is really unlike anything we've seen before in the U.S., roughly 110,000 drug deaths every year now. The heroin and crack epidemics that people talk about really pale by comparison. So public health experts tell me we've got to get the solutions to this right.

MARTIN: I think there's always been a tension between the kind of tough on crime approach to addiction and then the public health approach. Is there a way in which this moment is different?

MANN: Yeah, I think the gap between the two sides is widening again, in part because so many people are dying. That raises the tension. But also, there's just more research showing the criminal justice response may be putting people with addiction actually at greater risk. One new study in the American Journal of Public Health found big drug seizures, big roundups of drug dealers actually causes spikes in overdose deaths. That's because people with addiction wind up searching for new dealers. They wind up buying even more dangerous drugs. I spoke with Jennifer Carroll, who's one of the authors of that study.

JENNIFER CARROLL: If the goal is to save lives, then we have pretty good reason to believe that criminalization isn't really serving that purpose very well.

MANN: And I spoke with one of Carroll's co-authors, Brandon del Pozo, a former police chief and now a drug policy researcher. He says these tactics put people at risk without cleaning up neighborhoods.

BRANDON DEL POZO: There's a long history of big drug arrests followed by press conferences that say this time will be different. This time will make a difference. And except in the very short term where it leads to more overdose, it hasn't made a difference.

MANN: These researchers say tax dollars and public attention should focus on health care, housing and treatment, not more police.

MARTIN: At the same time, a lot of lawmakers in state legislatures and in Congress are pushing for much tougher drug laws and more enforcement. What are they telling you?

MANN: Yeah, there is a fierce bipartisan push right now for laws that target drug dealers who sell fentanyl, also this drug xylazine that's causing overdoses and terrible flesh wounds in users. I spoke about this with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat from Nevada, who says her xylazine bill would help police crack down on traffickers.

CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO: I can just tell you what I'm seeing and hearing from my law enforcement. It is becoming an emerging threat and a problem we need to get a handle on now and not wait to lose more lives.

MARTIN: So what does the senator say about this research that shows that criminalization and crackdowns actually may do more harm than good?

MANN: Yeah, Senator Cortez Masto is a former attorney general. She was Nevada's top state prosecutor. And she says police have a big role to play in this.

CORTEZ MASTO: Doing nothing is not the answer. We do need to stop the trafficking of these drugs and give law enforcement the tools they need. We can't just allow the drugs to come in because we are seeing too many deaths.

MANN: Critics, of course, say police have been arresting drug dealers since the 1970s, but there are more drug deaths now, more toxic drugs on the streets than ever before.

MARTIN: With the two sides so far apart, at least right now, are you hearing anything sort of hopeful or any ideas about what might sound like an actual solution?

MANN: Yeah, given all the public fear about drugs, especially fentanyl, experts tell me we are likely to see more cops making more arrests, sending more people to prison. But those same experts tell me they hope this new research will lead to more public health funding. They also hope police departments are going to evolve their tactics, working more closely with public health departments and harm reduction groups. So after a big drug bust, there might be more coordination with people, helping those struggling with addiction. Brittney Garrett was a cop for 15 years. And she works now with police departments, advising them on drug-fighting strategies.

BRITTNEY GARRETT: We've had a large drug seizure. Now we need to provide outreach and support to the community to help people who are going to be struggling.

MANN: A lot of people I talked to said if we can get this balance right, with the role of police integrated into a wider public health response, it could save a lot of lives and maybe bring those terrible overdose numbers down.

MARTIN: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Brian, thank you.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.