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One woman’s controversial fight to make America accept drug users for who they are

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One woman’s controversial fight to make America accept drug users for who they are

Louise Vincent has used street drugs since she was 13. She has emerged as a leading voice trying to humanize and help people who use drugs as they face the most devastating overdose crisis in U.S. history.

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Louise Vincent has used street drugs since she was 13. She has emerged as a leading voice trying to humanize and help people who use drugs as they face the most devastating overdose crisis in U.S. history.

April Laissle/NPR

When Louise Vincent was introduced at a drug policy conference last month in Phoenix, the huge crowd erupted in applause.

She’s a small woman, rail thin. At age 47, her face is weathered by what she describes as a hard life.

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It’s grown harder in recent years, after drug cartels began pushing deadlier drugs into U.S. communities, including fentanyl and the veterinary drug xylazine.

“We saw the drug supply turn upside down,” Vincent told the crowd. “It’s toxic.”

In interviews with NPR, Vincent said she herself began using drugs at age 13 and has never been able to live sober long-term. “What they told me was if I couldn’t get [off drugs], I wasn’t doing something right, and that’s not true,” she said.

Vincent points to research showing that abstinence-focused approaches to recovery don’t work for many people who experience addiction.

Her own ideas are controversial and face serious opposition from many U.S. politicians. Many Democrats and Republicans want tougher laws and longer prison sentences to combat fentanyl.

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But Vincent has emerged as one of the leading voices in the U.S. pushing to humanize and rally help for drug users, like herself, even when they’re not yet willing or able to live sober.

“We have made it OK to abandon people who use drugs. We tell an entire group of people it’s OK if they die,” she said.

With total drug deaths in the U.S. now topping 112,000 fatalities a year, she argues the U.S. focus on law enforcement and drug abstinence hasn’t worked and it’s time to try something new.

“We’ve had the real push for abstinence for how many years now?” Vincent said. “And where have we gotten?”

A philosophy of “harm reduction” born on the streets

Vincent’s own addiction started early in North Carolina. From the start, she said people told her she was valueless, a junkie, a criminal and a zombie.

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“I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” she said. “It’s devastating.”

According to Vincent, this kind of stigma, rejection and isolation deepens the cycle of addiction and self-destructive behavior that leaves people like herself vulnerable.

The illegal drug supply has only gotten more dangerous since Vincent began using. A few years ago, before public health warnings were issued about the dangers of xylazine being mixed into fentanyl, Vincent used a dose of the chemical cocktail.

It left her with wounds that still haven’t healed. “It has eaten the skin off my entire arm,” she said. “I can’t even talk about it without crying.”

Louise Vincent (left) actively uses drugs such as fentanyl. She wears special sleeves to cover wounds caused by her accidental exposure to xylazine, a dangerous chemical that drug dealers mixed into her fentanyl.

Brian Mann/NPR

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Louise Vincent (left) actively uses drugs such as fentanyl. She wears special sleeves to cover wounds caused by her accidental exposure to xylazine, a dangerous chemical that drug dealers mixed into her fentanyl.

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Brian Mann/NPR

This part is hard for many Americans to understand. If drug use is so harmful, why don’t thoughtful people like Louise Vincent simply stop?

Research shows addiction doesn’t work like that.

It’s complex, hard to beat, tangled up in everything from mental illness and trauma to poverty and homelessness.

Federal researchers say roughly 27.2 million Americans experience some kind of drug addiction. Roughly 5 million to 6 million people in the U.S. misuse opioids every year.

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Opioids like fentanyl and heroin are especially difficult to escape. Relapses are common.

Most experts agree the U.S. has failed to create the kind of health care system needed to help more people recover.

Vincent’s argument — laid out at conferences and public appearances — is that the U.S. needs to reinvent addiction care by treating drug users with dignity, helping them avoid the worst outcomes.

The addiction strategies Vincent supports include:

  • giving drug users basic healthcare and access to clean needles and other supplies that are proven to reduce disease such as HIV-AIDS and Hepatitis C
  • making medical treatments for opioid addiction, like methadone and buprenorphine, far more accessible and affordable
  • when street drug use threatens to disrupt neighborhoods, responding with affordable housing, counseling and other supports, not more arrests.

“Let me just say, I didn’t start doing harm reduction because I wanted to save the world,” she said. “I wanted to save myself. I need a family. I didn’t want to feel rejected anymore.”

Harm reduction advocates say many of the 27 million Americans who use illegal street drugs every year aren’t able to achieve sobriety. They want the U.S. to embrace programs that help people use drugs more safely.

Brian Mann/NPR

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Harm reduction advocates say many of the 27 million Americans who use illegal street drugs every year aren’t able to achieve sobriety. They want the U.S. to embrace programs that help people use drugs more safely.

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Brian Mann/NPR

Bringing drug users out of the shadows

Vincent was one of the first activists in the U.S. to put many of these ideas into practice, offering active drug users services and care out in the open.

She created the Urban Survivors Union, a space in downtown Greensboro, N.C. Drug users who come here don’t have to hide their addiction. They can get a meal or a cup of coffee.

“It was a total mess, and we have worked really hard to turn it into a cozy, warm place,” she said, while giving NPR a tour of the facility.

Staff are available to guide people toward social service programs or treatment. There’s equipment available to test street drugs for high-risk chemicals such as fentanyl and xylazine.

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“We’re creating a wound room for xylazine wounds that people are coming in with,” Vincent said.

She compares this grassroots effort — humanizing and bringing drug users into the open — to the fight for LGBTQ acceptance during the 1990s. The stigma and death surrounding addiction during the fentanyl crisis, she says, mirror the early years of the HIV-AIDs epidemic.

Photographs of people who had died from drugs are on display during the Second Annual Family Summit on Fentanyl at DEA Headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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Photographs of people who had died from drugs are on display during the Second Annual Family Summit on Fentanyl at DEA Headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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“We’ve had an entire community swept away. I can’t even think of all the people I know who’ve died,” she said.

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“I mean so many people have died. My daughter died. Our mentors are dead. I can barely stand to be here sometimes because of all the trauma and all the people that we’ve lost.”

Many drug policy experts in government, academia and addiction treatment — including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine — have come to share Vincent’s belief that the current U.S. approach to the drug crisis has failed.

The AMA and ASAM have endorsed the idea of providing safe drug consumption sites as a strategy to reduce fatal overdoses, as Canada, Portugal and other nations have done, but so far only two such sites operate openly in the U.S., both in New York City.

“It’s so dangerous right now, and there are some answers and some things that work that we just downright refuse to implement,” Vincent said.

A “harm reduction” backlash as public anger over drug use grows

A mentally ill homeless woman experiencing addiction leans on a rail after wetting her hair at a drinking fountain in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, Monday, May 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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A mentally ill homeless woman experiencing addiction leans on a rail after wetting her hair at a drinking fountain in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, Monday, May 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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Many politicians are moving in the opposite direction. Responding to homeless camps and open-air drug markets, some Democrats and Republicans have backed tougher drug laws for fentanyl like those passed during the crack cocaine epidemic.

Vincent fears this backlash will force more people like herself underground, making them even more vulnerable to overdose.

“They are now saying arrest, arrest, arrest, arrest,” she said. “Nobody is going to talk about their drug use that’s not already out.”

Vincent says she’ll keep fighting for the idea that drug users around the U.S. deserve acceptance and places, like her drug-users union, where they can go to feel welcome and safe.

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“I think it’s everything. We built this and we did it underground when it was illegal,” she said. “I’ll do it illegally again. I believe that people who use drugs deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

But with fentanyl deaths still rising and many politicians promising an even tougher response, Vincent acknowledges that her vision of drug users gaining acceptance and care in the U.S. still feels a long way off.

April Laissle, host and reporter at NPR member station WFDD in North Carolina, contributed reporting to this story

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System outage hits house sales and payments across UK and Europe

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System outage hits house sales and payments across UK and Europe

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House purchases and big UK and European transactions were disrupted on Thursday after an outage at the Swift international cross border payments system that lasted for several hours.

The Bank of England said a “global payments issue” affecting the central bank’s Chaps service, which is used in the UK for big wholesale transactions as well as retail ones such as house purchases, had delayed “some high value and time sensitive payments”.

The BoE later said payments via Chaps had resumed. The European Central Bank also said its settlements system had been affected by the Swift outage.

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The outage caused brief chaos in the UK’s housing market, which is reliant on the Chaps service for completions.

Estate agent Foxtons said two law firms it works with had reported delays of at least four hours for funds to be transferred.

Swift, which facilitates cross-border payments between banks, said in a statement on Thursday that it experienced an “operational incident delaying the processing of services”, adding this was not caused by a cyber attack.

Swift said it “takes any operational incident extremely seriously, is conducting a full investigation and apologises for the disruption caused”.

The BoE initially flagged the Chaps service problem on Thursday afternoon, saying it was “working closely with a third-party supplier, industry and other authorities to resolve the issue as promptly as possible”.

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The BoE later said: “We are pleased to confirm that the third-party supplier has restored service following their earlier issues, and Chaps payments are settling as normal.

“We expect that all payments received by the bank today will be settled by the end of the day.”

The ECB said it had delayed by one hour the closing of its settlements system because of an “issue impacting Swift”.

With fewer Eurozone banks reliant on the Swift system compared to UK financial institutions, its problem caused less disruption for the ECB than the BoE, according to one person briefed on the matter, who said the issue was having an impact around the world.

The Chaps service is an automated payments clearing system the BoE has managed since 2017. Its 35 direct participating banks are supervised by the Payments Systems Regulator.

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Payments via Chaps only make up about 0.5 per cent of total transaction volumes in the UK. But their total value accounts for about 92 per cent of sterling payments.

Several thousands of financial institutions make Chaps payments. Last year, a record 51mn payments were processed on the service, which handled £363bn worth of transactions daily in June on average.

Chaps was hit by a computer crash in August last year resulting in thousands of house purchases being delayed.

Additional reporting by Joshua Franklin in New York

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Biden under intense pressure from Democrats to drop out of election against Trump

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Biden under intense pressure from Democrats to drop out of election against Trump

U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on April 15, 2024.

Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

As President Joe Biden isolated at his beach house in Rehoboth, Delaware, on Thursday after testing positive for Covid, he faced renewed pressure from leading Democrats to drop out of the 2024 election contest against former President Donald Trump.

Biden, who for weeks has flatly rejected calls to step aside and allow another nominee to take his place, is now said to be more open to listening to top Democrats about the risk of him remaining in the race. He has also reportedly asked advisers in recent days whether they believe his vice president, Kamala Harris, could beat Trump in November.

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“We’re close to the end,” a person close to Biden told NBC News.

The pressure on the 81-year-old Biden stems from concerns that after his June 27 debate, if he remains the nominee he will not only cost Democrats the White House, but also cost the party its majority in the Senate and doom its chances of retaking the House.

Former President Barack Obama has privately expressed concerns to Democrats about the viability of Biden’s candidacy, both the Associated Press and The Washington Post reported.

Biden served two terms as Obama’s vice president, and the 44th president still has unrivaled influence within the Democratic party.

The two Democratic leaders in Congress — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, both of New York — have told Biden in recent days that his presence on the party ticket could cost them majorities in both chambers of Congress.

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Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., told the Reuters news service late Wednesday that Biden is “working towards” a decision that will “put the country first.” Hickenlooper did not explicitly call on Biden to drop out, saying that was “his decision to make.”

“But certainly there’s more and more indications that that would be in the best interests of the country, I think,” the senator said.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the Democratic nominee for one of the state’s two Senate seats, openly called for Biden to drop out of the race Wednesday.

Schiff and Hickenlooper joined about 20 other Democrats in Congress who have made similar public calls.

Schiff is close to Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic former House speaker. CNN reported Thursday morning that Pelosi told Biden recently that he cannot beat Trump and that he could doom Democratic chances of winning a House majority if he insists on remaining in the race.

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Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who to date has fully supported Biden’s plan to stay in the race, told NBC News on Thursday he had heard “growing concerns” from voters in his state this week.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in our state that have concerns ever since the debate,” Casey said. “But I think my position has been very clear, and I think I think the president will do what he’s always done, which is put the best interests of the country first.”

Read more CNBC politics coverage

The Biden campaign’s public response to growing concerns has not changed, and top staffers remain dead-set against the president dropping out.

“Our campaign is not working through any scenarios where President Biden is not the top of the ticket,” Quentin Fulks, principal deputy campaign manager told reporters in Milwaukee on Thursday.

“He is and will be the Democratic nominee,” said Fulks.

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Later Thursday, a source close to Biden pushed back at the top Democrats pressuring for the president to bow out.

“Can we all just remember for a minute that these same people who are trying to push Joe Biden out are the same people who literally gave us all Donald Trump?” the source told NBC News.

“In 2015, Obama, Pelosi, Schumer pushed Biden aside in favor of Hillary; they were wrong then and they are wrong now,” the source said.

That source also noted how polls in 2016 showed the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading Trump by as much as 9 percentage points.

“How did all this work out for everyone in 2016?” the source said, referring to Trump’s victory that year.

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“Perhaps we should learn a few lessons from 2016; one of them is polls are BS, just ask Sec. Clinton. And two, maybe, just maybe, Joe Biden is more in touch with actual Americans than Obama-Pelosi-Schumer?” the source added.

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Video: J.D. Vance Accepts Vice-Presidential Nomination

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Video: J.D. Vance Accepts Vice-Presidential Nomination

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J.D. Vance Accepts Vice-Presidential Nomination

Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention that served as both an introduction to party delegates and a blueprint for his campaign with Donald J. Trump.

“Mr. Chairman, I stand here humbled and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to say I officially accept your nomination to be vice president of the United States of America.” Crowd: “J.D., J.D., J.D.”

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