These days, it’s hard to stop news from Washington, D.C., from flooding your news feed. We take a moment every week to bring you important stories beyond the White House and the Capitol. Here’s what we’re reading now.
1. New York City becomes the fourth city in the U.S. to announce plans for safe injection sites
Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will develop plans to open up to four safe injection sites for heroin users. Supporters say the sites decrease overdoses because there are staff with naloxone, which helps reverse the effects of an overdose, and that they also reduce diseases spread through sharing needles, because users can discard used needles and access new, clean ones. Though there are no legally operating safe injection sites in the U.S., Seattle, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have also pressed for sites in their cities. [Buzzfeed News]
Why it matters: In a speech, de Blasio said the opioid epidemic kills more people in New York City than car crashes and homicides combined. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, an average of 116 people died per day from an opioid overdose in 2016, and last summer, President Donald Trump declared the crisis a national emergency.
Though political leaders across party lines agree there needs to be a solution, they disagree on the details. The Trump administration’s approach has emphasized law enforcement measures, headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ crackdown on illegal drugs crossing the border. In January, the President signed the Interdict Act, which provides additional tools for federal agents to detect fentanyl and synthetic opioids at the border.
But others are pushing to implement measures like safe injection sites, which aim to decrease fatal overdoses rather than the amount of drugs on the market. Advocates like the progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner say it is impossible to simply police the epidemic. The left-leaning Drug Policy Alliance argues that safe injection sites “reduce HIV and hepatitis transmission risks, prevent overdose deaths, reduce public injections, reduce discarded syringes, and increase the number of people who enter drug treatment.” The first safe injection site in North America opened in Vancouver in 2003, and in 15 years, there have been more than 3.5 million injections, but zero on-site fatalities.
2. The difficulty of containing prison gangs
Federal authorities announced another big round of charges last week against several violent and racist prison gangs across the North Texas area.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Dallas last week said investigators charged 57 people linked to several white supremacist prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, with conspiracy to commit kidnapping and other drug trafficking conspiracies. Forty-two of those people were arrested in a takedown last week, the office said.
From October 2015 to April 2018, the dozens of defendants “conspired together, and with others, to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine,” the office said in a statement released by the Justice Department, adding that the gang members used “stash houses” to store the meth.
The statement also cited an instance earlier this year when four defendants kidnapped, and held and tortured a victim, who didn’t belong to any of the gangs, over a suspect drug threat.
“The defendants pointed a pistol at the victims head, threatened to kill the victim, hit the victim with a large wooden object on the back of the head and used a hatchet to chop off a portion of the victim’s left index finger,” the statement said.
U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox told reporters in a news conference last week that these “hate-fueled gangs will do whatever they must do in order to carry on their drug trafficking business.” [The Dallas Morning News]
Why it matters:The announcement of the bust comes months after Texas and federal authorities said they had ended a yearslong prosecution of members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, with their 89th and final conviction.
At the time, authorities said the conviction meant that the ABT, thought to be the “oldest and most notorious racist prison gang” in the U.S., and its ilk were “decimated” in the region.
The latest charges against these gangs, including those named in last week’s indictment — the Aryan Circle, the Peckerwoods, the Soldiers of Aryan Culture, the Dirty White Boys — point to how ABT has “still been able to carry on significant criminal activity,” despite the earlier prosecution, Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League told the PBS NewsHour.
ABT has a nationwide footprint, with most of its estimated 2,600-member base concentrated in Texas, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing a 2012 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Of those, nearly 200 are thought to be in prisons, though other estimates have placed membership as high as 3,500 people. Part of what’s made gangs like ABT difficult to contain is because the illegal activity can continue behind bars.
Pitcavage also highlighted authorities’ mention that some of the defendants were possibly associated with Tango Blast, a Hispanic gang in Texas. This isn’t surprising because white supremacist gangs in Texas cooperate with some of the Hispanic gangs on drug-related issues, despite their racist ideology, he said.
That’s because groups like the ABT and the Aryan Circle will “put profit motives before ideology,” Pitcavage said. “Organized crime first. White supremacist second.”
3. Why robocalls continue to increase
You’re not imagining it — robocalls are indeed on the rise.
You’ll probably receive one by the time you read this report from The New York Times on the annoying uptick of these pre-recorded gadflies.
The automated, artificial calls, many of them scams, have long been an annoyance on your cell phones, but they’re actually getting even more common. The Times cited a YouMail report that said an estimated 3.4 billion robocalls were logged in April, a jump of nearly 900 million a month compared with last year’s numbers.
One tactic, as described by Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, that has seen a marked increase: “neighbor spoofing.” This is when these unwanted calls appear with phone numbers that appear to be local. [The New York Times]
Why it matters:Robocalls, while an annoyance, can also mine for personal information. The Times noted that the top three phone scams are ones that pertain to interest rates, credit cards and student loans.
There are ways to head off these automated calls. But placing your phone number on the national Do Not Call list is not a foolproof way to block all of them, especially if scammers are ignoring the law to begin with.
In the meantime, it appears complaints about robocalls will also increase in tandem.
4. Lebanon voters cast ballots in first election in nine years
On Sunday, voters in Lebanon cast ballots in the country’s parliamentary elections, the first in nine years.
But fewer than half of voters turned out for this year’s elections, according to early results, down from 54 percent in 2009, which CNN described as a sign that voters are disillusioned with how the country has handled rising unemployment, mounting debt and decaying infrastructure.
Lebanon has a complicated power-sharing agreement that says the speaker of the Parliament must be a Shiite, the prime minister a Sunni, and the president a Maronite Christian. It also divides the 128-member parliament into an equal number of seats for Christians and Muslims, and further divides those groups by sect.
New elections should have been held in 2013, but disagreement over election rules — which now ask voters to choose “a favored list and a preferred candidate from it,” rather than vote for each seat individually — prompted the parliament to delay elections several times.
The new rules encourage more alliances at the local level, which election watchers say has boosted support for Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group backed by Iran. Though early results suggest Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, kept roughly the same number of seats in this election, its allies saw big gains, largely at the expense of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his party, the Future Movement, which lost about a third of its seats.
This means Hezbollah has the chance to control a majority of parliament, when its seats are combined with those of its allies.
It’s “a victory that they will use as evidence of popular support for the party’s intervention in Syria, its stance toward Israel, and broader regional alliance with Iran,” David Kenner wrote in The Atlantic. That worries analysts who say a Hezbollah-driven agenda could deepen a divide between the group and its allies, backed by Iran, and other political parties, who are supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States. [Reuters]
Why it matters: Since the last election in 2009, the arrival of more than a million refugees from Syria’s civil war have strained Lebanon’s economy and services, and a series of bombings, attacks and assassinations have aggravated political tensions.
A report from the United Nations Development Programme says that nearly 30 percent of those living in Lebanon — about 1.07 million people — are poor, living on less than $4 a day. Another 300,000 live on less than $2.40 a day.
Yet neither “Hezbollah and its allies, nor their opponents, provided any details on how they’d improve the region’s economic situation,” Kenner wrote on Twitter.
It’s still not clear when the government will release official results, nor what will happen when negotiations over the new government begins. The process could take several weeks or months, The New York Times said.
5.Visa shortages threaten to send Maryland’s crab industry into turmoil
One possible consequence of the Trump administration’s changes to immigration policy: expensive crab cakes.
According to the Baltimore Sun, nearly half of the crab houses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore failed to receive H2-B visas to hire workers to pick crab meat this summer. As a result, the price of crab meat is expected to skyrocket in peak crab months. Usually, the visas are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis, but this year, the Trump administration introduced a lottery system to cut back on the number of visas in order to make more jobs available for America workers.
But finding local labor is easier said than done, Bill Seiling, director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association told the Baltimore Sun.
“Nobody wants to do manual labor anymore,” he said [The Baltimore Sun]
Why it matters: The H2-B visa program was created to help businesses compensate for labor shortages by bringing in foreign workers. The number is capped at 33,000 for the summer and another 33,000 for the winter. However, if there is a greater demand, Congress can–and often does– increase the number of visas. In 2015, Congress made 198,000 additional visas available. This year, according to the Department of Labor, 81,008 applications were received just for summer visas.
In a tight labor market, the administration’s new visa system is forcing communities with tourism-dependent economies to scramble to find seasonal workers.
For example, in Branson, Missouri, a mostly white, tourist-driven town in the Ozarks, the local economy is dependent on cheap labor in the tourism industry, but struggles to get locals to apply, the Washington Post reported. So businesses have recruited workers from high unemployment areas in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, to skirt the visa lottery rules.
The omnibus spending bill signed into law in March increased the number for available visas for the year to 129,547, and 15,000 additional visas have been since made available. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md, said that he is working to make sure some of those visas go to workers headed to the Eastern Shore.