Dreamland is a vital and vibrant read, an important investigation that deserves a large audience.
America is rotting from the inside out. Pull off the interstates, away from the box stores and fast food restaurants and you will see desiccated towns with ghostly main streets, the result of vanished industry and the squeeze on private business by corporations. It’s no surprise that Wal-Mart is the largest employer in many of the Midwest and southern states. The mill has been shut down. Monsanto is pushing out the family farmer. So, what’s left?
Surprisingly, many of the addicts in Sam Quinones’ searing Dreamland don’t come from poverty. While rural America slowly dies off, heroin addiction is swallowing up our suburbs. Once thought a drug for the inner cities and the hidden corners of Appalachia, heroin now has a stranglehold on a population generally not known for using this destructive drug. In this thoroughly researched tome, Quinones talks to users, dealers, cops and doctors and drops the blame squarely at the feet of Big Pharma.
As medicine advances, doctors continually look for ways to treat their patients’ pain. Quinones investigates the evolution of drugs such as OxyContin, opiates that doctors handed out to patients with little discrimination in the late ‘90s and ‘00s, using minimal research to absolve themselves of the drug’s addictive nature. Some unscrupulous doctors, realizing the lucre in the pill, even opened pain clinics where they sold OxyContin in the same way a dealer peddles. Soon, doctors were writing prescriptions for OxyContin for injuries as simple as backaches. Unfortunately, the drug is also extremely addictive and entire towns such as Portsmouth, Ohio, were riddled with addicts who switched to heroin when they could no longer cop Oxy.
Kids began to die from overdoses. Heroin dealers descended upon towns such as Portsmouth, changing the American Dream of suburbia into a hellish reality of zombie-like addicts stealing from Wal-Mart. Everyday people – from the starting high school quarterback to the local carpenter – could no longer function, so addicted were they to the morphine molecule. No one spoke about the epidemic, ashamed that their son or daughter overdosed.
At the same time, Quinones tells the story of the Mexican gangs that moved into these towns and cities, selling black-tar heroin from a small town in Nayarit called Xalisco. Using a scheme never seen before, these “Xalisco Boys” made scoring heroin as easy as ordering a pizza, a metaphor Quinones is fond of repeating throughout Dreamland. Each cell operates as its own enterprise. Drivers carry small balloons filled with heroin in their mouths while telephone operators field orders. They try to retain customers by offering lower rates than the competition. They don’t carry guns. They don’t deal to blacks. Above all, they make it so easy for the customer that it’s nearly impossible not to become hooked.
Quinones digs deep and talks to the men who are dealing drugs. These aren’t nefarious gangsters with machetes and machine guns. Most of the drivers are young men who want to return to Xalisco with enough money to build a house and pay for the band at the annual corn festival. Levi’s 501s are a status symbol and when these boys return to Mexico, they try to bring back jeans to give out to family and friends. This means they have truly arrived.
In many ways, Big Pharma’s role in the story is more insidious than that of the Xalisco Boys. Quinones chronicles how Purdue Pharma, the company that made billions on OxyContin, hid evidence and fought to keep the drug easily accessible for doctors and patients. It is amazing how one form of drug dealing could result in years in prison while another form is condoned as capitalism at its finest. Thanks to people like Quinones and others in public health, many of the pain clinics have been shut down and OxyContin is more difficult to obtain.
If anything takes away from Dreamland it’s the constantly shifting narrative that can be a little difficult to follow at times. Quinones also has a penchant for repeating himself. A more streamlined approach would have only added to the power of this book. These are only minor quibbles, however.
Dreamland is a vital and vibrant read, an important investigation that deserves a large audience. In a telling afterword, Quinones pushes deeper into the psychology of America, investigating the fear that keeps kids off the streets and out of nature, confining them to bedrooms and binding them to technology. This creates children with “trigger warnings,” those who would rather take a pill to quell pain than face discomfort. For those of who think drug addiction is for other people, Quinones and Dreamland is an important wake-up call.