In his first visit to upstate New York, Sam Quinones, author of the critically-acclaimed book Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, delivered a powerful lecture to the Hamilton community on the story of the opioid epidemic in America. This is a problem that has been plaguing the country for many years, but it recently reached mainstream attention because of the gravity and scope of the epidemic.
Quinones’ tale started when he came across a story about Mexican black tar heroin on the streets of Huntington, West Virginia. His pursuit of how the drug made it all the way from Mexico to West Virginia led him to the discovery of a large supply of heroin and dealers coming from a small county called Xalisco. But the discovery of one of the sources did not explain how heroin use spread in communities across America. To answer this question, Quinones dug deeper into the use of opioid painkillers and a changing American culture.
Starting around the 1980s, the world of medicine underwent a massive shift in how it viewed pain. Pain became unacceptable, and people were looking for an easy way to fix it. Groups of doctors along with pharmaceutical companies began pushing opioids as a safe, non-addictive solution to pain. This movement reached its advent with the introduction of OxyContin in the mid 1990s. It was easy to get pills, and people quickly became addicted and desperate for a more potent, cheaper alternative in the form of heroin.
In conjunction with the new painkiller culture came a changing American culture. According to Quinones, heroin is an expression of values Americans have fostered for the past 35 years. The title of the book comes from a case study that represents a larger movement away from the public and into the private. In the town of Portsmouth, Ohio there was once a public pool complex called Dreamland. It was the center of social life until it was shut down and replaced with a strip mall in 1993. The community lost a focal point and became increasingly isolated.
This isolation is typical of American society today, with little face-to-face interaction and accountability. Isolation, says Quinones, is heroin’s natural habitat. The combination of a steady source, painkiller addiction, and an isolating culture have created the current heroin epidemic. Quinones emphasized that there is not one solution to this problem–looking for silver bullets is what got people into this problem in the first place. Any attempt to solve this multifaceted problem must itself be multifaceted.
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Levitt Center, Dean of Faculty, Counseling Center, Wellness Program, and the Continental Fund.