The Least of Us, Part Two: Big Dope, Consumerism, Supply & Demand

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)

It’s hard to know where to start in delving in to Sam Quinones new book, The Least of Us. The more I read, the more I want to say in the hope of convincing everyone to read this insightful and comprehensive treatise on how we ended up where we are today in American society and why he finds reasons for hope even amid such despair.

When Sam wrote Dreamland in 2015, he was truly an anthropologist documenting the origins, development and cultural characteristics of the Opioid Epidemic. But Quinones saw beyond the opioid epidemic and warned us of the dangers of synthetic designer drugs and the kingpins who made their products in Magic Bullet blenders and illicit labs. With cheap fentanyl, 100 times more powerful than morphine, traffickers laced it into every other street drug causing tens of thousands of deaths in America. At the same time, they made Meth more potent and cheaper, causing its own epidemic of mental illness, violence, and homelessness. It presents “the rawest face of living addiction. Meth users dragged themselves through the nighttime streets, howling, hysterical, starving.”

When he continued his investigations in The Least of Us, he came to realize that, “In a time when drug traffickers act like corporations and corporations like drug traffickers, the forces looking to manipulate our brains for profit are frightening to behold. So many more synthetic blasts compete for our brain receptors–from chicken nuggets and soda to cell phones and social media apps, methamphetamine and fentanyl.” (1) This is not news to any of us and yet we seem strangely mesmerized to our own state – and that of our children – as we continue to acquiesce to the lure of pervasive consumerism.

Big Dope – like Big Tech, Big Pharma and Big Finance – is Big Business aimed at the voracious consumer market in Western society where traffickers are producing illegal synthetic drugs of abuse year-round. No more having to wait for two or three poppy crops every year. They have easy access to world chemical markets, global banks to wash their money, and weapons to enforce their will. Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels written by journalist Ioan Grillo in Mexico, documents the ways guns are easily bought in the US and smuggled south to arm drug gangs in Latin America. Seventy percent of firearms the Mexican military seized in 2018 were made or bought in the US. But Quinones is clear that Mexico, China, and the US all share responsibility for the worldwide addiction crises.

Although the Law of Supply and Demand is commonly associated with economics, it is also part of our daily lives. When the supply of something decreases (making it rarer) or when the demand for that good increases (making it more sought after) the price goes up. Conversely, goods will decline in price when they become more widely available (less rare). This is never truer than in the world of illicit drugs.

Sam Quinones lived and worked in Mexico for 10 years and he believes “solutions will come only when Mexico and the US work together. This is crucial because walls don’t stop dope. Not in an era of free trade.” (2) He stresses that drug demand is important, but the drug epidemic begins with supply.  Remember how the opioid epidemic started? Purdue Pharma – Big Pharma – and their relentless marketing (pushing, trafficking, peddling) and unlimited supply of prescription opioids? (3)  They were the initial ‘dope dealers’ of the opioid epidemic. Or go back in time to the Opium Wars and British trade merchants. (4) And how about sugar-laced breakfast foods, snacks, drinks? (5) Did we demand them for our children or were they supplied and pushed via relentless advertising by multi-national corporations? And the motivation for all these actions? Money, and lots of it.

Next time, I will share the hope Quinones gained as he traveled the country and listened to stories from those affected by the addiction crisis. I hope that I have piqued your interest sufficiently so you will buy a copy of The Least of Us (6), read it, and pass it on to friends and family.

  1. The Least of Us, pg. 362
  2. Ibid
  3. Where the Buck Stops and Where It Is Hiding – BLOG January 26, 2020 https://opiatenation.com/2020/01/26/where-the-buck-stops-and-where-its-hiding/
  4. Laudanum––an opium tincture that contains almost all of the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine––was developed in the 16th century. Many Puritan wives of the whaling merchants used it daily. By the 18th century, the medicinal properties of opium and laudanum were well known. The Chinese knew it was addictive when the idle rich used it “recreationally”, and so they banned it in the 1720’s. But the British trade merchants (some of the early ‘corporations’) saw it as a source for additional income from their colonies. In 1839 the first wars were fought––The Opium Wars––that succeeded in opening up trade with opium from India. Those increased supplies created what we’ve all heard about – Opium Dens – that plagued China for a century.
  5. The Least of Us, pg. 81
  6. https://samquinones.com/

The Least of Us, Part One: Julian

(Translation into most languages at tab to right)

As I was driving home in 105-degree heat last week, I noticed a young man carrying a plastic bag stumble to a bus stop bench and sit down. It was clear he was homeless and it was equally clear that he was on drugs. I felt compelled to pull over. I rolled down the window and asked, “Are you ok?” He said, “No.” I asked if he needed help, and he wept and said “Yes.” When he came over to the truck, I asked if he was on drugs, and he said “No.” I said “I think you are on drugs and you don’t need to be ashamed.” He said he was, so I asked if I could sit with him and talk.

As we sat on the bench in the heat I asked what drug Julian (not his real name) was using. Fentanyl in the form of street Oxy’s that sell for $2 and come from Mexico. He is homeless, has never known his father, his mother is out of state and done with him. He is 23 years old and has been struggling with alcohol and addiction for 5 years – fentanyl for the past 1½ years. I told him about my son and said Julian was on the same path to the morgue unless he could get clean. He had gone to rehab in March with a predictably miserable 5-day detox and then was supposed to go to a sober home, but said they never got him there – probably not true. I offered to take Julian for something to eat and to try to connect him with a program to help him. While I drove and he nodded off, I called a few of the directors I knew from programs our son went to, but had to leave messages. I decided to take him home for a shower and a rest as we tried to find him a place.

My husband John prayed with this sweet and troubled young man and encouraged him to know there was hope and that he wasn’t a bad person, or less-than, but had a powerful war waging in his brain that needed medical help and emotional support. We drove him to the public behavioral health service, where he had gone in March, and got him signed in. It was an hour wait for him to go through intake again, so we left him with our names and phone numbers to give as his contacts for help so that we could follow up on how he was doing.

When we tried to follow up the next day, we found he had done a runner and never went through the intake. I would guess the fear of excruciating withdrawal was stronger than the fear of a potential or eventual death. This is so common, especially for those who have tried many times to get clean. Addiction specialist, Dr. Richard Whitney said, “Once people get addicted, they really lose the power of choice.” (1)  Even with medication, the drugs need to be out of your system first. On average, it takes 4-5 recovery attempts and 8 years to achieve one year of sobriety. After another 5 years in recovery, the relapse rate drops to 15%.(2)That is 13 years to try to undo what most commonly started as trying something fun as a young person. The chemistry in our brains needs more time to recover than a few weeks or months from the damage done by opiates.  

In 2015, Sam Quinones released his award-winning book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic documenting how Purdue Pharma – with a monopoly on the market on pain in the 1990’s with its new highly addictive drug, Oxycontin – deceptively promoted it as a non-addictive solution for every ache and pain. Then, with the lure of easy money, young men in Mexico, independent of the drug cartels, trafficked black-tar heroin to neighborhoods in America as a cheap alternative to Oxy’s. Its powerful long-lasting high then became the go-to drug for millions of young people who could heat and smoke it – our son included. Quinones states that the perfect storm was created when the pursuit of prosperity, pain avoidance, and the breakdown of close-knit family and community life, beginning in the 1960’s, created the void that those easily available opiates filled.

Quinones has recently released The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. It is the second most important book written on addiction and American society. In my next blog, I will delve into this new book and discuss where we are in the drug epidemic and where we can go from here. I personally need some hope as I see the thousands of homeless young people on the streets of my city and struggle with the tension of wanting to help prevent one more life from a literal “dead end” and feeling frustrated with the lack of effective programs to help these addicted individuals get the long-term recovery care they need. This – in a country where the majority of people seem to think that health care is a privilege for those who can afford it instead of a basic service for all Americans, including the least of us.

  1. Dreamland, pg 328
  2. John Kelly, PhD – https://www.recoveryanswers.org/

Missing Community

(Fifteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

(This blog was posted on December 27, 2020, but due to technical glitches, it was not shared on some platforms – here it is again for those who missed it.)

For much of the world, Christmas and the holiday season this year has been nothing like our normal times of celebrating with family and friends. Togetherness is dangerous in most countries due to Covid-19. Yet, despite all the health and safety warnings, many have travelled and gathered with their loved ones. Why would people risk the well-being of themselves and their beloveds just to spend a few hours or days together?

Community. We all need it and ultimately cannot live without it. Communities may seem optional when all is well, but they become indispensable during hard times, whether personally or corporately. They can be small or large and most of us have several different sizes and types that we are part of: our family, school, sports, church, work, etc. What communities have in common are shared interests, beliefs, and needs, even while the individuals may have diverse characteristics. They are united and working towards a common goal and understand that they can achieve it because of, and with, the support and encouragement of others.

Continue reading “Missing Community”

Avoiding Pain

(Thirteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

We are living in particularly precarious times – for people born since WWII, unprecedented problems the world over – seemingly beyond our ability to control or to deal with effectively. With the Coronavirus pandemic, complex problems have arisen for our global society to attempt to solve, from the manufacturing and transport of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the best medical treatments and the development of a vaccine – which is viewed by many as the magic potion but only if the majority of people could be convinced to ‘get the jab.’

During this extraordinary year pain has come into most of our lives in ways we have not experienced previously: physical pain from contracting Covid19, emotional pain from being isolated or from watching those we know or care for becoming sick and dying, and mental pain from the anxiety caused by all the unknowns surrounding the pandemic. For people living in poverty, these problems are compounded.

Continue reading “Avoiding Pain”

Choices While in the Dark

When life on this earth results in tragedy and loss – personal, communal, international – we are immediately faced with choices we did not anticipate nor plan for. An untimely death, an assault or abuse, financial ruin, a health crisis, relational trauma, anxiety: the list is endless. What do we do? Most of us want to just turn and run while we also know there is no place to run to or to hide from the turmoil within. So how do we take the next step forward when everything in us doesn’t want to and we are facing a challenge we have never faced before?

We remember that we all have choices even when it seems there are none. It is what makes humans unique. Referring back to my blog “Darkness & Light” and the thoughts from Jerry Sittser in his book  A Grace Disguised, when we choose to move towards the darkness knowing we will eventually see the sun rise, we find gifts along the way that we could have never imagined. But we also find more choices. Sittser cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, reflecting on his time in a Nazi death camp and how “the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to the terrible loss and darkness of their circumstances displayed dignity, courage and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering…and so grew spiritually beyond themselves…they learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain.”

Continue reading “Choices While in the Dark”

America’s Love Affair with Opioids

Andrew Sullivan’s 2018 article for the NY Magazine entitled “The Poison We Pick”, wrote: “…For millennia, the Opium Poppy has salved pain, suspended grief, and seduced humans with its intimations of the divine. It was a medicine before there was such a thing as medicine. Every attempt to banish it, destroy it, or prohibit it has failed…This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it…According to the best estimates, opioids will kill up to half a million Americans in the next decade.

“Most of the ways we come to terms with this wave of mass death…miss a deeper American story. It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy. Continue reading “America’s Love Affair with Opioids”

Dreamland (Young Adult Adaptation): The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2019)

I am devoting this blog to a review by Shelf Awareness of an essential book in the battle against early exposure to opioids which has destroyed so many young lives – our son’s included – in the past 20 years. Please give a copy of this book to every teenager and young adult you know and love.

Journalist Sam Quinones’s lauded 2015 Dreamland was, according to our review, “a comprehensive and empathetic investigation into the Mexican pipeline feeding the United States heartland’s growing appetite for opiates.” This adaptation, pared down for a young adult audience, is a sharp, engrossing work of narrative nonfiction.
Dreamland snares the young reader immediately with the story of Matt Schoonover from Columbus, Ohio, who began using prescription opiate painkillers in high school, became addicted and moved to black tar heroin when the “street OxyContin” became too pricy. A day after returning from three weeks in rehab, at the age of 21, Matt fatally overdosed. Continue reading “Dreamland (Young Adult Adaptation): The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2019)”

Poetry – for all our needs

In March, I wrote a blog about fentanyl that featured a poem by Carol Bialock: Breathing Under Water. I knew almost nothing about the author other than that she was clearly a deep thinker and an excellent poet. After that post, I was contacted by Fernwood Press, to let me know that for Carol’s upcoming 90th birthday, they were publishing a collection of her poems.

I have since learned more about this remarkable woman who was a sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Chile and a lifelong activist for human rights. (To learn more about her, please go to www.CarolBialock.com.) I want to share some highlights from Coral Castles, her newly published book.

I am no poet and I confess, I struggle when reading most poetry – I do better hearing a Continue reading “Poetry – for all our needs”

American Pain

From my earliest memories, I have had leg aches. They come on fairly suddenly for no apparent reason. It wasn’t until my 20’s when I figured out they related to the weather and changes in barometric pressure. I know, it sounds like folk-magic. But it’s true . As I was growing up, my parents would wrap my knees in stretch bandages and rub my legs with witch hazel. One thing they never did was offer me a pill for my pain. Never. In the pre-1980’s world, pain was part of life and mostly bearable.

My how things have changed. America­­­–with 5% of the world’s population–went from consuming less than 5% of the world’s prescription opioids in the 1960’s to now consuming some of the highest percentages of prescription opioids such as oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, etc.

In 2015, John Temple,  an investigative journalist and journalism professor, wrote American Pain. It was one of three key books released that year in response to our opioid epidemic, the other two being Dreamland and The Big Fix. The title is taken from the “king” of the Florida pill mills, American Pain, a mega-clinic expressly created to serve addicts posing as patients. From a fortress-like former bank building with security guards, American Pain’s five doctors distributed massive quantities of oxycodone to hundreds of customers a day, mostly traffickers and those addicted, who came by the van load. Former strippers operated the pharmacy, counting out pills and stashing cash in garbage bags. Under their lab coats, the doctors carried guns. Continue reading “American Pain”

PAIN

One time when our son was camping with friends and their families in the wilderness, a friend of ours asked him why he used heroin. JL said: “Because it takes away all the pain.” Our friend shared this with us and several hundred other friends at our son’s memorial – and said he always wondered if JL was referring to physical pain, emotional pain, or both.

From my earliest memories, my knees and legs ached at random times and varying intensity. Sometimes I thought it was from running or playing too hard. At other times, it seemed like it happened when it rained. But, being in a large family growing up in the late 1950’s and 60’s, there were not many options for relieving that pain. My parents would sometimes rub my legs with witch hazel, which made my legs feel good at the time. Sometimes they would wrap my knees in an Ace bandage to help while I was at school. Yet there was one thing that never happened: I was never given any medicine to relieve my pain.

I didn’t realize when I was young that most likely even if my parents had known of a drug that would have relieved my pain, they would not have given it to me because they were not worried about me having to suffer a little pain. They knew that pain was an inevitable and bearable part of life, and an important part of forging resilience. Sadly, John and I — and many of our contemporaries — did everything we could to help our kids avoid pain. Now we are  experiencing the result of those mistaken values. We found the same thoughts expressed by Sam Quinones, as he discusses this at length in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. (www.samquinones.com/books/dreamland/) He believes this dynamic is in large part responsible for the opiate epidemic because it is intertwined with our American culture of comfort and prosperity.

Yes, the pharmaceutical companies and their executives who shamelessly promoted drugs that they knew were highly addictive are responsible for much of what we are living with — and dying from — in America today. But we are responsible for facilitating a culture of pursuing a pain-free existence. It can be obtained, but at what price? Is it one more way we humans think we can overcome the perils of nature and living in an imperfect world?

We are not sure when our son first started using opiates, but we think that it started with prescription pills that were not his or ours. And we know that after a serious accident, when the doctor would no longer give him prescriptions, he bought Oxy on the street, then switched to BT Heroin. He just couldn’t deal with the pain and he was not motivated to do physical therapy — it was too much work.

I feel certain that JL was referring to both physical and emotional pain. What may have started as looking for relief from some physical pain when he was a young teenager, turned into a monster that was causing him shame and ruining his life — and that is painful.

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