Book Review: Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Lena H.
Most people are aware that the morphine-based drug OxyContin and its cousin, heroin, are widely abused, but few know the story of how these drugs became the bane of life in towns across America. Author and acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones charts the people, places, and events involved, diving into the story from the springboard of Dreamland, a vast community swimming pool that opened in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1929. Who would have imagined that 40 years later this thriving town and countless others like it would be experiencing an addiction crisis?
In the 1970s, with the new influx of cheap goods from abroad, many of Portsmouth’s factories and businesses closed. Of the inhabitants who stayed, many went on unemployment or disability. Anxious and in pain from years of hard labor, they went to doctors who prescribed OxyContin, paid for by their government insurance. Patients came back for more and more. Some became addicted; some made money selling their cheaply-obtained painkillers for high prices on the streets. As went Portsmouth, so, too, went other towns in the Midwest “Rust Belt.”
Meanwhile, some people from Nayarit, a small state on the western coast of Mexico, discovered the US market for black tar heroin harvested from the poppies which grew in Nayarit’s hills. A few entrepreneurs left the little town of Xalisco, Mexico, for California and began a business selling heroin through small “cells.” Cars delivered heroin like pizza, bringing tiny balloons filled with the drug to waiting individuals.
Family members moved north, started their own cells, and became rich, compared to their struggling, sugarcane-harvesting relatives in Nayarit. Uncles and sons delivered stacks of US designer jeans to Nayarit and built fancy houses there for their families. These “Xalisco boys” soon expanded business to the Midwest and beyond.
Unable to afford or obtain enough of the prescription pills, some Americans getting OxyContin from doctors in places like Portsmouth began meeting Xalisco boys in parking lots – even clinic parking lots – to buy black tar heroin, a pure, cheap alternative to pills with the same euphoric effect. The “Black Gold Rush” was on, existing symbiotically with the flow of prescribed opiates.
For years, the epidemic seemed to fly under the radar of American law enforcement, while those addicted slipped into the opiate abyss. In 2007, Ohio’s health department proved that drug overdoses were killing more people in the state than car accidents. In 2008, opiate deaths overtook vehicle fatalities nationwide.
On Super Bowl Sunday in 2014, when actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead with a syringe in his arm, all of America “awoke to the opiate epidemic.” By that time, now aware of the dangers, the medical world had begun to cut back on prescribing opiates; however, the now “swollen population of OxyContin addicts nationwide [was switching to heroin] in even greater numbers.”
While the US is a long way from recovery, rays of hope do appear. Some drug courts now require treatment instead of prison. More medical facilities are replacing opiates with a multidisciplinary approach to pain treatment. Family and addict support groups are flourishing. State governments are getting involved. A college recovery movement has begun offering drug-free dorms, counseling and scholarships to kids in recovery.
Portsmouth’s luxurious Dreamland pool is no more. But the Ohio town finally shut down its pill mills, and gyms, stores, and cafes fill once-empty buildings. With 10% of Portsmouth citizens in recovery, “the town that led the country into the opiate epidemic” is “now poised to lead out of it as well.”
For comprehensive coverage of this topic, author Sam Quinones includes clarifying maps, a timeline, source notes and a detailed index. Because he treats his interview subjects – addicts, traffickers and government workers – with openness and respect, Quinones is able to elicit in-depth information, which he shares with directness and compassion. Pages turn quickly, dispensing eye-opening facts.
This book is indeed the true tale of America’s opiate epidemic to date, and it’s every bit as fascinating as a bestselling mystery novel.