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Reform groups want big changes to U.S. drug policy

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A lot of Americans are dying of drug overdoses, and a lot of those overdoses are tied to fentanyl. In the next few minutes, we're going to look at a very different and, supporters say, more helpful approach to that problem. It pushes health care and also individual dignity over drug arrests and incarceration. NPR's Brian Mann joins us live from a conference in Phoenix, Ariz., where these ideas are being talked about. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with the basics. What is the problem here that needs solving?

MANN: Well, what's interesting is that people here say there are really two linked problems. The first is drug overdoses driven by fentanyl, killing record numbers of people - more than 112,000 deaths a year, according to the latest data. Everyone agrees that's just unbelievably catastrophic. The second part is more controversial. People at this conference say it's now clear that the drug war, which focused on a police response, you know, lots of arrests, lots of prisons, they say all that simply failed. So activists like Kassandra Frederique, who heads a group called the Drug Policy Alliance that organizes a gathering, they say it's time to go in a whole new direction.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: We, too, are distressed by what we see in the street. While we do not agree with coercion or incarceration, that we're also grasping to see what is gonna work, not because it's this theoretical framework that we're pushing, but because we want it to work for our loved ones, too.

DETROW: And, Brian, I mean, 120,000 deaths is such a staggering figure every time you hear it. What are some of the ideas here for alternatives?

MANN: Yeah, so people here are pushing for a really massive public investment in health care and affordable housing and job training and mental health care. And here's a controversial part, Scott. They also want decriminalization. The hope of activists here is that someday, we'll look back on the criminalization of all the millions of people who use drugs the way we look back now on alcohol Prohibition.

DETROW: I mean, a lot of ideas that are good in theory get caught in so many things, like politics to begin with. I mean, do the folks at this conference believe that some of these big changes could be possible, could be realistic?

MANN: It's a good question. And over the last decade, we have seen a lot of these ideas gain some traction. The so-called harm reduction movement, where people still using drugs are helped with things like clean needles or fentanyl test strips, you know, where people hand out naloxone to help reverse overdoses - those things used to be controversial and even illegal. Now they're pretty mainstream.

DETROW: And, you know, as you know and as you've covered, critics will say these strategies enable drug use. And I feel like fentanyl itself is so deadly, I imagine it would be a harder sell to decriminalize. What do people there at the conference say about that pushback that they know is coming?

MANN: You know, people here acknowledge the public's really frightened, you know, by seeing so many homeless, so many people in severe addiction, so many deaths, and some politicians are responding to that fear by pushing for more severe drug laws, similar to what we saw during the crack cocaine era. And, you know, so there's - really is a backlash out there. But, you know, some people say, Scott, that even high-risk drugs like fentanyl become even more dangerous when they're criminalized. This is sure controversial, but people here are convinced that if drug users have more support and care, they will be safer.

DETROW: That's interesting. NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann at the Drug Policy Reform Conference in Phoenix, Ariz. Brian, thank you so much for talking to us and for bringing us this report.

MANN: Thanks, Scott. 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.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.