By Milena Mills
Award-winning author and freelance journalist Sam Quinones told a packed UCSB McCune Conference room exactly what needs to happen for America to overcome the effects of a 20-year opioid epidemic:
“We have to question the drugs that are marketed to us, demand that the government stop allowing [drug] advertisements on television, depend less on pills as solutions and depend on our grocers to stock better food,” he said.
Quinones made the remarks as he spoke about his 2015 book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic and his time working as a reporter on immigration, gangs, drug trafficking, and the border for the L.A. Times.
The event was part of a lecture series called Crossings + Boundaries hosted by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.
The beginning of Quinones’ career in journalism coincided with the American crack cocaine epidemic, but he was living in Mexico at the time, covering immigration. He made connections between the rise of drug abuse back in the United States and what he noticed in the towns he reported on in Mexico.
Quinones described how the town of Jalisco in Nayarit, succeeded with a one-product industry – as many towns in Mexico did – but that its one product for export was black tar heroin.
The Jalisco dealers who moved to the Unites States were largely nonviolent and had a flair for customer service.
Quinones said these dealers would come to the U.S. “clean out a JCPenney” by buying jeans, then trade their Levi’s bounty with Mexican residents for heroin, which they would then to sell to Midwesterners.
“[They] couldn’t kill each other and eliminate their competition because they were all from the same town. They were related,” Quinones said of the newly transplanted community. “But they had figured out this magnificent system for transforming very cheap black tar heroin into stacks of gleaming Levi’s 501 jeans.”
The dealers, who had initially immigrated to Canoga Park in Los Angeles as well as Ventura County further north, expanded to states like West Virginia and built a booming business selling small balloons filled with heroin, delivering it to customers like pizza delivery men.
Quinones said he first approached the topic of heroin abuse from the perspective of a crime reporter before realizing there was a broader story to tell — the destruction of small town America and huge portions of the middle class at the hands of American pharmaceutical companies.
“Why West Virginia? I still don’t know the answer, but that’s where the story of the ‘Jalisco Boys,’ as I’ve grown to call them, intersects with another story that I didn't know existed,” Quinones said. “That’s the story of a revolution in American medicine, and the way we treat and manage pain.”
The Mexican dealers introduced stronger heroin into the Midwest throughout the 1980s, creating a dependent population that provided a market for the opiate epidemic that has been growing ever since.
The pharmaceutical industry began to aggressively market OxyContin to average Americans as a non-addictive option for treating post-op or chronic pain, with no recommended ceiling on dosage, Quinones said. He explained that the so-called “non-addictive” pain medication quickly became available to heroin addicts as a cheaper substitute.
Quinones went on describe Portsmouth Ohio, the “Dreamland” referred to in his book’s title, as an example of a small American town which lost almost all sense of community during the epidemic. The town’s transformation during the “pain revolution,” meant businesses closed, outdoor recreation all but ceased, and inhabitants stayed home.
Spending more time indoors meant more time watching television, and the local Wal-Mart replaced the community pool as the town hub. Quinones was scathing in his blame for television’s 24-hour news cycle, which had already encouraged social isolation that became even worse as heroin infiltrated the town.
“We wound up dangerously separate and isolated from each other as Americans, whether in poverty or affluence,” Quinones said, implying that corporate media - not only drug dealers - helped erode community life in middle America.
Quinones said the opioid epidemic is getting more coverage now because it has overwhelmed so many swaths of the population.
“People say we’re only recognizing this now because it’s affecting middle class and upper middle class white people, and my feeling is that’s not true,” he said. “It was hidden, because it was middle and upper class white people who didn’t want it to be public.”
He said these families believed they were alone with their children’s overdoses and did their best to hide the truth until 2015 when they began to lose their fear. “They began to come out of the shadows,” he said.
Quinones believes the epidemic will only resolve itself when affected citizens in small town America rebuild their communities instead of masking their pain and problem with consumer spending and media consumption.
Milena Mills is a Junior in Film & Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara.