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APR’s John H. Glenn: Looking back at stories I covered in 2020

Glenn reflects on his stories, ranging from efforts to mobilize Black voters to a ban on the dangerous drug Tianeptine.


There are few silver linings in this year that has been defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 330,000 of our fellow Americans not able to greet the new year to come. That is, by far, the biggest and most significant story of 2020, but others are important to remember, too.

Here are four I was able to cover this year.

Tianeptine in Alabama

It is astounding that a compound manufactured explicitly to mimic the effects of opioids is still completely legal to sell throughout Alabama, despite efforts to thwart Tianeptine pill manufacturers and their ability to sell “gas station dope” within state borders.

Tianeptine is an atypical antidepressant, commonly bottled as “dietary supplements” by brands like Tianaa and ZaZa, despite not possessing any “dietary” qualities and not being approved by the FDA.

In September, the Alabama Department of Public Health designated Tianeptine as a Schedule II narcotic. By Nov. 12, Premier Manufacturing Products, the company that manufactures the Tianaa brand Tianeptine pills, brought a legal case.

ADPH failed to file an economic impact study, which was the crux of Premier’s legal argument. Deciding to withdraw the ruling and vowing to work on an economic impact statement, ADPH and Premier jointly dismissed the case.

Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka, watched his bill aimed at criminalizing possession of tianeptine die on the Senate floor after the session adjourned sine die. “[Premier] is worried about an economic impact study? What about the ‘human impact,’” Holmes said. “That’s the real cost of this dangerous drug — the human impact, not the dollar reduction to the state from sales tax collected.”

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Black Voters Matter Fund

In an election largely won by record turnout among Black voters across the country, the Black Voter Matter Fund and their get out the vote campaign deserve some credit, especially in some rural areas in the South.

Founded by two activists, LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, Black Voters Matter Fund is part mobilization effort, part funding apparatus for local groups that lack the money and resources they need, and groups that are no capable of going through grant processes that so often fund non-profit organizations.

“Black Voters Matter has been effective in their role of building, elevating, and funding grassroots organizing initiatives to build power in the South,” JaTaune Bosby, executive director of the Alabama ACLU, told APR earlier this year.

“It is their work that allows organizations like the ACLU to make strategic decisions on programmatic work to help advocate for better access for voters and build support for election protection across the state,” Bosby said.

Maternal Deaths

Alabama mothers die from pregnancy and childbirth at twice the national average, and new research this year showed that out of those deaths, nearly 70 percent were preventable. This, in a state ranked the third-highest in the country for maternal deaths.

The Alabama Maternal Mortality Review Committee named cardiovascular conditions as the most common, and mental health and substance use disorders as prime contributors in almost half pregnancy-associated and pregnancy-related deaths recorded in 2016, the latest year with available data.

“Substandard healthcare is the greatest issue facing our state,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox in a tweet linking the article. “From expanded prenatal care to more mental health & substance abuse services, Medicaid expansion would be life-changing for healthcare & the economy. Time has come to join most other states.”

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Birmingham’s police and facial recognition technology

In October, the Birmingham City Council committed to a $1.3 million contract with Motorola, integrating existing equipment for the cities real-time crime center. One application, BriefCam, has onboard, usable facial recognition software that other police departments around the country use or have used. Many have moved or are moving to ban its use over concerns that the technology is racially biased.

Despite Birmingham Mayor Ronald Woodfin continually repeating publicly that the BPD would not use facial recognition software unless authorized to do so by the City Council, public furor over its potential use mounted.

City Councilman Steven Hoyt in the meeting approving the contract surely stoked those anxieties by proclaiming: “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom.'” He later admitted the need for oversight and public review of facial recognition software use if implemented.

John is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can contact him at [email protected] or via Twitter.


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