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June 12, 2019

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones - a Review

by Alison DeLuca

Dreamland draws the reader in and won't let go until the last word. Sam Quinones has created a fascinating journey through time and the backroads of the Rust Belt in a thorough exploration of what happened when pain meds collided with black tar heroin. In the process, he's created a sad, frightening, and ultimately uplifting look at the crisis still going on in the United States.

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According to Quinones, the crisis was a perfect storm of events. Pain was seen as something to be treated, a new philosophy in medicine. The timed-release opioid known as OxyContin followed. At the same time, a group of rancheros in Xalisco found how lucrative it was to grow, manufacture, and distribute what become known as black tar heroin.

cover of Dreamland by Sam Quinones

The book opens in Dreamland, a community pool in Portsmouth, Ohio. Families saved to send their kids there every summer. Parents hung out on picnic blankets while the kids swam, splashed, and eventually courted each other at the dance held on the lawn each night. Later they got married, had children of their own, and moved to join the other parents on the blankets.

As manufacturing jobs dried up and the city recovered from a devastating flood, Dreamland faded away and was sold to a strip mall developer. That site hosted one of the first pill mills when OxyContin hit the market in a big way.

But "Dreamland" represents other lost fantasies as well. There were half-built houses in Xalisco, all begun by the farm boys who sold black tar heroin in America and ended up spending that money on 501 jeans or big parties for other rancheros. Those never-to-be-completed structures were also Dreamlands, representing the fantasies of the rancheros.

Dreamland also represented the idea that opiates could be manufactured in such a way that they would dull pain but not be addictive. Dreamland was the conversation between addicts who sold their Oxy prescriptions and vowed to save that money. They always ended up spending it on heroin.

What lifts this book above many non-fictions is the look inside several fascinating characters, each representing different aspects of the opiate storm. There is Enrique, one of the ranchero boys who ended up selling black tar heroin in the States. Dr. Procter was the fast-talking doc who opened a pill mill in Portsmouth and dressed like Liberace. They are joined by Alan Levine, a reformed addict who lost both legs to frostbite when he was on drugs and sleeping under an overpass.

And there's the morphine molecule itself, which has the unique ability to give a few hours of indescribable pleasure followed by a lifetime of misery, according to Andy Coop. The chemical addiction expert Quinones interviewed in order to understand the molecule talked about this strange property of morphine:

Most drugs are easily reduced to water-soluble glucose in the human body, which then expels them. Alone in nature, the morphine molecule rebelled. It resisted being turned into glucose and it stayed in the body. “We still can’t explain why this happens. It just doesn’t follow the rules. Every other drug in the world— thousands of them— follows this rule. Morphine doesn’t,” Coop said. “It really is almost like someone designed it that way— diabolically so.”

When I first heard whispers about heroin being the new drug of choice in the 1990's, I was in disbelief. How could this happen? Heroin was expensive (or so I believed) used mainly in back-alleys and inner-cities. Besides, I thought, it took a certain weak type of person to fall for that drug.

Dreamland quickly disabused me of that notion. I read about young athletes given painkillers by coaches, all under pressure to deliver wins. The season ended, but not their addiction to opiates.

And when the prescriptions ran out... there were the Xalisco boys, all of them willing to hand-deliver cheap and potent heroin.

I dove into Dreamland like those Portsmouth children jumping into the deep end of that beautiful, long-gone community pool. It was one of those books I read at the bus stop, the dentist's office, and way past my bedtime.

For those who want to understand the opioid crisis, you can't do better than Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. And if you're worried that it's too depressing, I can tell you that there is wonderful redemption at the end as the city of Portsmouth fights back.

It's important to add that Quinones doesn't vilify those who take opiates as part of a legitimate and monitored program. Pharma has eased the torment of cancer patients and those in end-of-life facilities, among others.

However, to follow the strange paths of Oxy, Fentanyl, and the Xalisco black tar heroin runners is an important and compelling journey. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn more.

Buy Dreamland at Amazon

Alison DeLuca is the author of several steampunk and urban fantasy books.  She was born in Arizona and has also lived in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain.
Currently she wrestles words and laundry in New Jersey.


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