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News brief: Macron-Putin talks, Alabama voting map, opioid crisis deaths

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Kyiv is turning into a revolving door for diplomats. Now, as we speak, French President Emmanuel Macron is on his way to Mariinsky Palace. There, he's set to meet with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss tensions with Russia.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's the second stop of a short, intense diplomatic trip. Yesterday, Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin alone for several hours. Macron has emerged as the face of Europe in its attempt to prevent Putin from sending his military into Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: Here to explain all this, NPR's Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, what can we expect from today's meeting in Kyiv?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, A. Well, Macron and Zelenskyy are going to sit down, and they're going to go over the points, the topics he discussed yesterday with Putin, and they're going to look for areas to build a possible dialogue with Zelenskyy and, you know, and see if they can keep expanding that dialogue and keep talking. Macron said yesterday his first goal in this shuttle diplomacy trip is to stop this immediate crisis, de-escalate these tensions, and he's going to get back to Putin again after speaking to Zelenskyy today. You know, Macron said that Zelenskyy had shown amazing strength and composure throughout this crisis, and he clearly has Macron's respect, which Putin clearly does not share because, at one point yesterday in the press conference, Putin, speaking of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, told Zelenskyy to deal with it.

MARTINEZ: Deal with it. Wow. And today's meeting comes on the heels of Macron's visit to Moscow. That was yesterday. How did he and Putin describe that meeting?

BEARDSLEY: Well, that was a very weird meeting, A. You could tell a lot about their more-than-five-hour meetup, you know, in their summaries and in their body language. Putin spent a lot of time railing against NATO. He said, you know, NATO - he said - you've had your guns and troops right on our border, yet you point to our military exercises on our territory. He said he didn't understand that. You could see how much it really was a thorn in his side. You saw his cynical worldview. You know, he spoke of Ukraine not keeping promises in the Donbas. That's where they've been fighting separatists, Russian-backed separatists, for eight years. He spoke of human rights violations in Ukraine and how they had closed down the media, which is exactly what Putin does himself.

So - and you saw Macron actually trying to deal with this, to have something positive to say. He looked very pained at times. Actually, the negotiating table itself was like a metaphor for the distance and difficulty of all this. They were, like, 20 feet apart at this very long table.

MARTINEZ: Huge, yeah.

BEARDSLEY: It was very cold looking and uncomfortable, yeah. And Macron admitted there were a lot of disagreements. He said Europeans did not necessarily share Putin's worldview. But he said he came to de-escalate the crisis. He said geography is not going to change. Russia is in Europe, and we have to negotiate with them, or someone else will. And then he said this.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He said Europeans will not have security if Russia does not have security.

MARTINEZ: So does that sound like progress?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, it was very difficult to say. They agreed there were a lot of points to follow up on, but we didn't get the details of those. Analysts say that just the fact that they sat down together for five hours with no aides, just interpreters, was good. They kept the dialogue going. That's a measure of success. One analyst called Putin Mr. Nyet. And a French government source told NPR this morning that Macron was struck by a much harder, incalcitrant Putin than the one he met two years ago. Macron said it's clear he's been isolated, and he described him as having a bunker mentality.

MARTINEZ: Now, that meeting took place as Joe Biden met with new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Are they all on the same page?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Biden says they are, and they're trying to appear to be. But Germany has had a long, historical trade relationship with Russia that they've been loath to sacrifice to diplomacy. So Biden said that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the gas pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany, would be stopped if Russia invaded Ukraine, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz did not disagree.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, thanks a lot.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Another Supreme Court ruling deals a blow to the Voting Rights Act.

FADEL: That's right. The high court yesterday stopped a lower court order that said Alabama's new congressional map doesn't give enough power to Black voters. The lower court had said that to comply with the Voting Rights Act, Alabama had to create two majority-Black districts, up from one district currently. Black residents make up more than a quarter of the state's population. The Supreme Court's decision is a win for the state's Republican map-makers.

MARTINEZ: Here to explain is SCOTUSblog co-founder Amy Howe. Amy, what stood out to you from the ruling?

AMY HOWE: It's another ruling that shows the effect of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020 and her replacement with a much more conservative Justice, Amy Coney Barrett. This was a ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts - (inaudible) - as a liberal - joined the court's three liberal justices, but that only gets you four votes, and you need five to form a majority. So that means that the state's map is going to stay in place for the 2022 elections, even though a three-judge panel - that notably includes two judges appointed by President Donald Trump - said that it violated the Voting Rights Act, which shows you how conservative the Supreme Court has become.

MARTINEZ: So what did the justices say?

HOWE: So the justices, as a court, didn't say that much. We didn't hear from the majority to explain this decision to put the order on hold. This came to the court on the so-called shadow docket. Alabama was asking the justices to put the lower court's decision on hold on an emergency basis. But we heard from three different sets of justices. The main dissent was Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. And she said the lower court got it exactly right. What the state is asking us to do is to rewrite decades of precedent, and by putting the lower court's ruling on hold, we're allowing elections to go ahead with the state's map, even though the lower court found that it violated the Voting Rights Act.

The chief justice wrote a separate dissent. He did not join Justice Kagan's dissent. He, too, would have kept the lower court's order on hold and required the state to draw a new map for the 2022 elections. He said the district court may have gotten the law right as it currently stands, but he said the law governing these kinds of cases is confusing; it does need clarification. And so he agreed with the decision to go ahead and hear oral arguments.

And then the third opinion came from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. It was, in essence, a response to Justice Kagan. He said, we're not allowing the state to rewrite decades of precedent. We're not rewriting decades of precedent. We're just - we're not weighing in on the merits of the case at all. We're just setting the case for oral argument. And then I'm going to get a little wonky here 'cause he talked about something called the Purcell principle, which I think is something we're going to hear a lot about in 2022 and 2024. It's the idea that federal courts shouldn't intervene in state elections in the run-up to the election. He said the primary's coming up, and it's basically too late to make changes now.

MARTINEZ: Amy, quickly, when is the court expected to take this up?

HOWE: So the court didn't fast-track this case. It's done that with a couple of cases - the vaccine case, the Texas abortion case. So we're all operating under the presumption that they're not going to hear this case until the fall, and in that case, we would get a decision in all likelihood sometime after the 2022 elections, probably in early 2023, in which case the people who would be elected to Congress under the current map would already be in Congress.

MARTINEZ: That's SCOTUSblog co-founder Amy Howe. Amy, thanks.

HOWE: Thank you for having me.

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MARTINEZ: Drug overdose deaths in America have hit record highs.

FADEL: A bipartisan federal commission is out with recommendations for tackling the leading killer - fentanyl. The commission calls this manmade drug a slow-motion weapon of mass destruction that threatens our economy and national security.

MARTINEZ: Joining us to discuss what's in the report and what's not in it is Martha Bebinger from member station WBUR in Boston. Martha, a quick reminder - what is fentanyl, and where does it come from?

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: A, it's an opioid, like many of the painkillers that doctors prescribe, but it's really powerful. Fentanyl can shut down breathing in seconds. It's now found in many illegal drugs, including counterfeit pills. Fentanyl is made from chemicals, most of which are produced in China or India, and then it's combined and packaged in Mexico and shipped north. Fentanyl is much cheaper and easier to produce than drugs that come from plants, and that's part of the reason why it's taken over the drug supply.

MARTINEZ: OK, you just mentioned China, India and Mexico. How does this report suggest the supply of fentanyl coming into the U.S. can be slowed?

BEBINGER: The report says the U.S. should try to disrupt the supply by targeting the makers of chemicals in China and India and targeting the money-laundering operations of Mexican drug cartels. Now, that's all going to require more international cooperation. Within the U.S., commissioners urge stronger efforts to stop online sales of fentanyl and deliveries using the mail. None of this is really new, and it isn't stopping the supply now. So the report says the U.S. must focus more on reducing demand for drugs.

MARTINEZ: What are the recommendations for reducing that demand?

BEBINGER: The report urges more education to warn casual and regular drug users that fentanyl is in many types of pills and drugs that we hear are sold on the street. It stresses the use of naloxone. That's the drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. It recommends more distribution of fentanyl test strips, which can detect fentanyl in many types of drugs. In short, A, it urges many ways to keep people alive until they are ready for treatment. The report does not endorse supervised consumption sites, which have been shown to save lives in Canada and other countries. But commissioners do call for better access to treatment overall.

MARTINEZ: And the report says that all of these efforts should be run through the White House with a director of drug policy in the president's Cabinet. Why?

BEBINGER: Well, the report says that creating that position could help coordinate the 18 federal agencies that play a role in drug policy, and it would show the importance of tackling this problem. The commissioners say that all of the steps they're recommending must happen simultaneously, A, or the number of Americans who die after an overdose will continue to rise.

MARTINEZ: The report also says that without some major policy shifts, the overdose crisis could get worse. Are there major policy shifts here?

BEBINGER: Well, that Cabinet-level position will be seen by some as a significant change. But advocates for people suffering from addiction are already doing a lot of what's recommended in this report. They say the U.S. must try new interventions and take bolder action now. Each year, this epidemic is costing the U.S. about $1 trillion, and more than 100,000 Americans died after an overdose in just one year, according to the most recent reports.

MARTINEZ: That's Martha Bebinger from member station WBUR in Boston. Martha, thanks.

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