Quinones sheds light on national opioid crisis

Photo by Jacob Medley.
Photo by Jacob Medley.

Author and investigative journalist Sam Quinones urged the community to change how they address the ongoing opioid epidemic facing the U.S. on Nov. 6. During his talk at VCU.

Quinones, renowned author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” proposed solutions to the widespread crisis he addressed in his book. Ultimately, Quinones said the solution cannot come from drug antidotes, restrictions and regulations. The solution lies in rebuilding community.

“Dreamland,” published in 2015 and chosen as VCU’s Common Book for the 2017-18 school year, tells the plaguing tale of the opioid crisis in America through the narratives of people living in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Opioid overdoses remain the leading cause of death for Americans over 50. With nearly 64,000 overdose fatalities in 2016, a 22 percent increase from the year before, the epidemic is on the rise. Deaths from prescription opiates have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Opioids are drugs used to relieve pain by slowing down the body’s nervous system. The epidemic in the U.S. encompasses legal drugs such as fentanyl, morphine and codeine, as well as illegal drugs like heroin.

In his talk at the Singleton Center for Performing Arts, Quinones addressed the severity of the opiate crisis by outlining the history of the epidemic’s development. Following the expansion of the opioid drug market and major changes in pain management beginning in the late 1980s, a rhetoric of “more pills equals less pain” spread.  

For decades the opioid market was concentrated in the Far East, making opioids expensive and hard to obtain, but the market silently expanded into the U.S. and Mexico American society caught up dealing with the “bigger” hard drug problems, Quinones said.

Along with the slowly expanding market, Quinones said doctors got behind a movement where opioids, narcotics and other painkillers became the tools to safely eliminate pain, despite addictive side effects.

The liberal use of prescribing these pills only resulted in society’s over dependence on them, he said. Doctors and others in the medical field bought into an idea that there was too much unnecessary pain tormenting American society, Quinones said.

“Our doctors began to buy the idea that we were a country in pain, and that they were the ones required to fix it,” Quinones said. “We increasingly demanded doctors to fix us. Doctors were car mechanics, our bodies were cars.”

The ease of eliminating pain created a society fearful of anything associated with pain, Quinones said.

“They began to make the argument that pain should now be considered the fifth vital sign,” Quinones said, “A vital sign is something you cannot live without. You cannot live without a pulse, a pulse is a vital sign. Pain, we can live with.”

But rather than living with pain, a fear was created, Quinones said.

“We came to believe we were a culture entitled to a life free of all pain but not just physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain.”  

With the introduction of OxyContin in the late 90s, a revolution of pill prescription and distribution spread like wildfire throughout the nation. The reason why the epidemic developed so gradually and silently, Quinones said, was because it didn’t develop violently. He said the problems of addiction and overdoses became easy to ignore because they were never associated with crime. Instead of starting through drug mafias, the opioid epidemic is rooted in the millions of doctors who wanted to alleviate a presumably unbearable pain, Quinones said.

“This is a story of the private sector, creating the worst drug nightmare in our country’s modern history.”

Speaking to over 500 VCU students, faculty, and community members Monday night, Quinones said society’s short-term solutions and proposed ‘‘silver-bullet’ solutions fall short of improving the state of the opioid epidemic in this country.

“We have to depend less as a society on pills.” Quinones said.

He said we have to stop demanding doctors magically eliminate our pain through easily prescribed drugs.

In his book, Quinones details a place called ‘Dreamland’ a community swimming pool in the heart of Portsmouth. Through the narratives the book followed, people watched as their community was shut down and replaced by pill mills and manufacturing companies. The result, he said, left Portsmouth at the heart of the pain revolution.

“I think the end of Dreamland spelled the end of community in Portsmouth, Ohio,” Quinones said. “Stripping away of the societal immune system, in a sense, leaving a town vulnerable.”

Quinones said the key to aiding the epidemic is recreating a sense of community. Whether it be through forming task forces, working together on community projects, or simply bringing people together, he said eliminating the dangerous isolation that is our reality because of the widespread opiate addiction.

“We’ve spent the last 35 years destroying community,” he said. “Heroin is what you get when you destroy Dreamland.”

After speaking, Quinones took questions from the audience alongside of William Hazel, Secretary of Health and Human Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Following the Q&A session, Quinones spoke with audience members and signed books at the reception.

Saffeya Ahmed, Contributing Writer

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