As the American opioid crisis reaches epidemic proportions, lawmakers, doctors and families alike are searching desperately for a solution to the biggest public health emergency in decades. Dreamland author and journalist Sam Quinones believes he has the answer.
“The antidote to heroin … is not Naloxone,” Quinones said to a packed audience in Call Auditorium. “The antidote to heroin is community.”
Quinones, a former journalist with the L.A. Times, is an award-winning author of three books of narrative nonfiction, including his latest book and 2015 National Book Critics Circle winner, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.
On Wednesday night, Quinones discussed his book in a talk at Cornell, which traced the origins of the the modern opiate crisis and solutions moving forward.
The event was sponsored by the Koen-Horowitz family and co-sponsored by the College of Human Ecology, the PAM Department, the Sloan Program, and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. Quinones was joined by Dr. Shannon Monnat, sociology, Syracuse University. Monnat is also the Lerner Chair for Public Health Promotion at Syracuse.
According to Quinones, the beginnings of the current drug crisis started in the mid-1980s, when doctors began to see pain as a treatable symptom rather than an unavoidable cost.
It was “a revolution of pain management in modern medicine … [doctors] thought curing pain was a noble calling,” Quinones said.
From there, doctors allied with pharmaceutical companies, who together pushed the idea that America was in an “epidemic of pain” that needed a cure, according to Quinones. In 1996, Purdue Pharma released OxyContin, the first narcotic painkiller, advertised to patients as the ultimate non-addictive cure for pain.
“It became … a pharmaceutical arms race,” Quinones said. “Pharmaceutical reps didn’t know what they were selling, they just knew how to sell.”
Addicts hooked on OxyContin but unable to afford the relatively high prices saw heroin as the cheaper, “no-brainer alternative,” Quinones said. Mexican drug cartels, sensing the opportunity, provided the heroin to former opioid addicts. And the rest, Quinones said, was history.
“We would never have the modern opiate crisis without OxyContin,” Quinones said.
The opioid crisis is even prevalent in Ithaca — in fact, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 previously wrote that 2017 was the “deadliest year for fatal overdoses on record” in Ithaca, The Sun previously reported. Myrick is an advocate for safe injection sites within the city.
However, according to Quinones, Americans themselves are not without fault: as communities weakened and social institutions fell, people wanted a life “free of physical pain and emotional pain.”
Quinones argued this is where opioids took root, and said that he believes in order to move forward, the only solution to the drug epidemic is rebuilding community.
“Heroin’s livelihood is our incapacities,” Quinones said. “We must work together to find change.”