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'Dreamland' Author Sam Quinones Gives Insight to America's Opioid Epidemic


A report out earlier this month showed a 30% increase in overdoses from opioid use around the country in just the last year.  In Wisconsin, the numbers are even more striking - the state led the nation with a 109% increase in overdoses reported by emergency rooms.

READ: Jump in Overdoses Shows Opioid Epidemic Has Worsened

The sharp increase around the country does not surprise Sam Quinones. The former Los Angeles Times reporter covers the opioid crisis extensively in his book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

"Really, I got involved in this whole book because I wanted to understand why heroin traffickers from Mexico were doing such big business," he explains. "So I kind of backed in to the story, but it lead me eventually to the pills."

The crisis began around the mid-1990s, Quinones explains, when the demand to treat pain more effectively resulted in incorporating more narcotics in medicine. "For many years, opioids were very sparingly used and controlled - and certainly never sent home with people."

"Supply created demand. And the supply in this case was not from drug traffickers, it was from doctors."

However, that changed as "you really began to see a cultural shift in modern American medicine," Quinones says. "Doctors bought into this idea that they could do this...without risk of addicting people. And across the country you began to see doctors prescribing more of these huge quantities as well. So we created this amazing huge supply of narcotics, a big black market broke out in those pills, and then a lot of people did get addicted."

One place in particular hit devastatingly hard by the opioid epidemic is the blue-collar city of Portsmouth, Ohio - the subject of Quinonies' Dreamland (named after the city's community swimming pool). What was once a thriving town was torn apart by factory closures, subsequent job losses, isolation, and addiction.

"I could see it was nationwide a problem, but I could also see that people did not want to talk about it," Quinones says.

Eventually people were willing to speak, and he was able to see first-hand how Portsmouth's residents were able to become more self-reliant economically and how the community developed its own movement to encourage recovery. 

Quinones says that the best way he thinks cities across America can battle the opioid epidemic is through proper funding, "but funding with a long term vision."

In October, the Trump Administration declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, but didn't classify or fund it as a national emergency.

Quinones sees this as an opportunity to spring board an American recovery. "I think that approach from the federal government will aid and encourage all these folks at the local level, who are already - without any encouragement from the feds - are already working pretty hard at this. This is a great opportunity to defeat this penetrating, crippling isolation that has so much a part of our culture."

He says the key to battling the opioid epidemic is through human connections. "These are drugs that thrive on isolation...these are drugs that create more isolation...and so therefore the best way to attack a problem that thrives on isolation and creates more isolation is through community."

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.