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Revisiting Two Cities At The Front Line Of The War On Drugs

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the war on drugs. And today, we'll visit two communities that found themselves on the frontlines. Huntington, W.V., and Brownsville, N.Y., were hit hard by drug addiction. They're also places where people say drug war policies left deep scars. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I want to introduce you to two people who lived this drug war and who helped me understand what it felt like in their families and their neighborhoods. Aaron Hinton's in Brownsville. It's a mostly Black part of New York City.

AARON HINTON: This is where I was born and raised. Most of my childhood friends who I played on that very playground with when I was, you know, younger - they're out here.

MANN: And now I want you to meet Courtney Hessler, who grew up in Huntington, a small, mostly white city in West Virginia.

COURTNEY HESSLER: It's such a tight-knit community. It has so much love in it and just people helping other people out.

MANN: In lots of ways, Huntington and Brownsville couldn't be more different. Courtney and Aaron are also really different people. He's 37, a Black man, activist and community organizer. Courtney's 30, a white woman, a reporter for the local newspaper. But what I found spending time with them, meeting their neighbors and sitting in places where they go for lunch, are the wrenching ways addiction and the drug war braid their communities and their lives together.

HINTON: I have known my mom to be a drug user my whole entire life. She chose to run the streets and left me with my great-grandmother.

MANN: Aaron's mom died a few years ago. She overdosed on prescription painkillers. He says he kind of shut down for a while after it happened. Courtney's mom, who's still alive, also struggles with opioid addiction. As a girl, Courtney spent time in foster care. She says abuse and homelessness and neglect still haunt her.

HESSLER: I was just mad all the time and just constantly just going - living my life just from a place of hate. And there was a point where I said, OK, there's something wrong with me. I really need to get help.

MANN: In Huntington and Brownsville, a lot of families were damaged this way. People in both communities say tough drug war policies that were supposed to make people safer just didn't work and, in some cases, wound up doing more harm than good. One reason I wanted to look at these two places together is because people are asking similar questions about the country's response to addiction - how it went wrong, how it could change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANN: Brownsville is super busy the afternoon Aaron and I walk along the shops.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

MANN: People are selling clothes and toys and sunglasses from tables on the sidewalk. When heroin and crack cocaine took root here in the 1980s, the government's response was to arrest people, lots of people, and send them to prison, often for decades. Brownsville's incarceration rate was among the highest in the nation.

HINTON: You know, they're spending so much money on these prisons and to keep these kids locked up, and they don't even spend a fraction of that money on sending them to college, like, or some kind of school, like, some trade schools or something. Like, come on.

MANN: If Aaron sounds angry, it's because he is. A lot of people here are furious.

ALICKA AMPRY-SAMUEL: What the war on drugs did was actually tore families apart.

MANN: Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who represents Brownsville on New York's City Council, told me change is happening here finally.

AMPRY-SAMUEL: We're seeing the dismantling of a lot of those policies today.

MANN: New York state's most severe drug war-era laws have been steadily repealed. Ampry-Samuel says that means a lot fewer people from Brownsville going to prison. A bill passed earlier this year legalized marijuana, and it dedicated funding from marijuana tax revenues to help communities like Brownsville. She says there's already more money for drug treatment and health care and even some progress changing how police interact with her community.

AMPRY-SAMUEL: Conversation is not about policing anymore. The conversation is about public safety and what does public safety mean?

MANN: People I talked to in Brownsville say after decades of the drug war feeling sort of inevitable and unstoppable, this shift feels meaningful.

HESSLER: You can keep going straight.

MANN: After leaving Brownsville, I'm in a car with Courtney Hessler driving through Huntington. I want to know if things are changing here in West Virginia, too. The city spreads along the Ohio River. It's a lot more conservative than Brownsville. There are a lot more pickup trucks. But while much of Aaron's neighborhood is poor and Black, much of Courtney's hometown is poor and white. On many streets, the houses are abandoned or occupied by people who are homeless, struggling with addiction.

HESSLER: I've covered many homicides on this street.

MANN: A lot of Huntington is lovely. There's a university, a big park along the river. Courtney and I sit to talk on the steps of a handsome old court building surrounded by shade trees.

HESSLER: It's beautiful. It needs some upkeep, but that's not our focus right now.

MANN: In important ways, the drug war played out differently here in Huntington. The main problem wasn't mass arrests and long prison sentences. Here, federal agencies created to protect people from drugs allowed pharmaceutical companies to flood the community with prescription painkillers.

HESSLER: It was pretty bad. It was 81 million opioid pills over an eight-year period came into this area.

MANN: People here voiced the same anger and confusion I heard in Brownsville. How did we spend hundreds of billions of dollars fighting this drug war and wind up with more addiction, more overdoses than ever? Right now, Courtney's covering a big opioid trial for her newspaper where a lot of that history is being dredged up.

HESSLER: I think it's important. You know, there's thousands of children that grew up the way that I did. These people want answers.

MANN: Like in Brownsville, there's a sense here this could be kind of a pivotal moment. If Huntington wins in court, corporations that profited from opioid sales could be forced to pay billions of dollars to help communities fund things like drug treatment and foster care. Even without that money, people say there have been important changes. The federal government finally cut the supply of opioid pills to local pharmacies. Huntington has also pioneered really innovative programs to help people with addiction get treatment and housing.

AMANDA COLEMAN: We're a place where people can come and get out of the weather, get showers, laundry, food, clothing.

MANN: I stop in to visit with Amanda Coleman. She runs a sprawling social service hub called Harmony House. There are projects like this all over Huntington - a shelter for moms and babies affected by opioids, another program to help people using heroin and other drugs avoid contaminated needles. Coleman says more people in Huntington are accepting that drug addiction is an illness, not something that can be defeated in a war.

COLEMAN: It's a part of everyday life here, basically.

MANN: After visiting Huntington and Brownsville, I think there is one more way their stories are intertwined. People in both places say there's progress, but changes feel fragile. For places in America where the drug war landed hard, this recovery won't be fast or easy.

SIMON: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. And, Brian, please stay with us a moment. You spent time with Courtney and Aaron. Did the two of them get a chance to meet and talk?

MANN: Yeah. You know, Scott, that was one of the most powerful parts of this project, seeing the two of them connect by video just a few days ago.

HINTON: You want me to go first? Or, Courtney, you want to go first?

MANN: Sure.

HINTON: OK.

HESSLER: You go first.

MANN: What I've learned reporting for this project, Scott, is addiction and a lot of these drug war policies have been really isolating. People I talked to described feeling divided and alone, so it was remarkable to see Aaron and Courtney talk to each other about what happened to their families.

HINTON: I mean, you never really get over it, you know, so it is kind of difficult to deal with. But you just find a way to deal with it, and you just keep going. But I think that because, like, the more I talk about it, the easier it becomes to talk about.

HESSLER: It's funny how different but similar our stories are. I'm always going to have a void in me somewhere, but I also look at it like he said. You know, you just have to move forward. It's kind of a sink-or-swim type of situation.

SIMON: Brian, what do Courtney and Aaron say about their communities and what they feel might happen next for Huntington and Brownsville? And do they have hope?

MANN: You know, they are hopeful. This drug war has been fought here at home in our neighborhoods and on our streets. And I think one of the most insidious ideas that developed in many places over the last 50 years is that some communities are maybe lost causes, described as war zones that are beyond saving. But that's not what I heard from Courtney and Aaron or from their neighbors. People say with help and investment and patience, they will rebuild.

SIMON: Brian Mann is NPR's addiction correspondent, reporting from Huntington, W.V., and Brownsville, N.Y. Brian, thanks so much.

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