A future classmate of mine recently asked me, based on my stated love of books, whether there was a single book that I’d recommend everyone read. Though of course it’s very much fresh in my mind, I believe that Dreamland is as good of a candidate as any nonfiction book in recent memory.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury 2015)
Dreamland presents a nuanced and well-researched story of the rise of the opioid epidemic in the United States, and the associated havoc that it has wreaked through US towns and cities, through a dual lens: the evolution of the heroin trade, funneled to the United States via Mexico, and the history of medically-sanctioned pain treatment, leading to the discovery and subsequent sales and marketing efforts of Purdue Pharma’s “blockbuster” drug: OxyContin.
Aside from onerous restrictions on medications at your local chain pharmacy, most who have yet to experience opioid addiction in their own lives see a minimal connection with the innocuously named Vicodin, Percocet, and the aforementioned Oxycotin and the insidious heroin. However, as clearly laid out by Quinones, the path from a medically sanctioned prescription for a common injury to a debilitating or life-ending addiction to heroin falls in a fairly straight line, from mostly sincere doctors (with a smattering of abusive/criminal cases) seeking to treat the pain of their patients, to Mexican peasants in search of a better life for themselves and their families back home importing their locally grown chiva (potent black tar heroin) to blighted American cities with an unestablished drug presence in the market. To satisfy their increasingly hungry customers, Quinones chronicles the savvy strategies to boost their drug trade, mirroring the optimization tactics of any normal corporate operation: from production, to logistics, to marketing and prospecting new clients (mostly outside of “pain clinics”), to steering clear of law enforcement.
Dreamland is a heartbreaking, infuriating, tragic, and gripping story masterfully told (and reported on) by Sam Quinones, a seasoned journalist and with twenty seven years’ worth of experience, including decades reporting on immigration issues on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Without Quinones‘ deft capacity for tying together disparate threads and humanizing his story through the stories of DEA and local police officers, scientists studying the link between opiates and addiction, former addicts and their surviving families, the story would be an ineffective tale of corporate malfeasance on the part of Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Instead, Quinones makes you question your stance towards addiction, and root for a revitalization of the communities and families that the “morphine molecule” has destroyed.
It is a beautiful book, and a worthy read for anyone even moderately curious about the massive opioid crisis taking place across the United States.