Opioid author says crisis is ‘bigger than drug addiction’

SARASOTA — In 2019, four years after Manatee County’s 57 recorded fatal drug overdoses placed it at ground zero of the state’s per capita opioid epidemic, Florida launched its Statewide Task Force on Opioid Abuse in an effort to develop a coordinated strategy for education, prevention and treatment to turn the tide.

But one of the nation’s leading experts on America’s addiction to heroin told a well-heeled Ringling College Library Association audience on Monday morning that “there is no solution” unless and until people like them literally get off their couches, get to know their neighbors, and recapture that lost sense of community.

“We’re actually fighting something much bigger than widespread drug addiction,” said journalist Sam Quinones, whose book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” became a bestseller in 2015. “We’re combating the real scourge in America today, which is isolation, our own fragmentation, our own division from each other.”

Based in Los Angeles, Quinones decided to follow the poppy’s metamorphosis from its black market “French Connection”-era roots into pharmacology’s prescription of choice for pain management. But he came away with a perspective on American culture he hadn’t anticipated. What he discovered was an interconnected, almost institutional “missionary zeal” to eliminate all forms of pain, and even discomfort, at the expense of reality itself.

He talked about a trend in college academics where courses are sometimes flagged on the front end with “trigger warnings” to protect students from “painful” ideas. “But you know what? That’s why you go to college, man, to be disturbed,” he said to applause. “I was at Berkeley — we got very disturbed!”

He recalled his childhood, where he and his playmates spent hours outdoors playing games every day. Quinones said whenever he revisits the old neighborhood lately, he doesn’t see any children out in the parks, and he imagines them being consumed by the 21st century’s socially isolating, myriad new digital pastimes. Along with everyone else.

Social media, video games, online pornography, alcohol, online gambling, sugar — “There isn’t anything that is legal and addictive that American corporate life won’t make more addictive,” Quinones said. “We’re all etching new brain pathways.” Even what passes for headlines and information trips our pleasure receptors, and creates entire tribes of junkies. “Twenty-four hour cable news,” he said, “is just like heroin.”

Quinones figured the heroin trail would serve up the usual suspects, those rural and economically depressed Rust Belt cities where jobs and futures had taken flight. Instead, he found the plague jumped all class barriers.

“I thought this was about pharmaceutical marketing and heroin trafficking from Mexico, and it is, that’s definitely part of the story,” he said. “But a bigger issue is why does this problem exist, in Rust Belt Counties, in Appalachian counties, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Orange County, California? What do those places have in common with each other? It’s not economic devastation.

“The common denominator, I believe, is isolation and destruction of community. And you can find that in a community that’s got everything. Nobody knows each other. Sometimes the houses are so big, mom and dad don’t even know where the kids are.”

But there is good news, he insists. Quinones is circling back through those heroin-haunted communities that figured in “Dreamland,” and he plans to update those findings in a followup book.

From the churches to the schools to civic groups, Quinones said stricken areas are coming to grips with the stark realities underlying the addiction.

“We need to reassess a lot of how we live,” he said, “and the values hovering over our kids,” he said. “It’s not pain we’re trying to prevent. It’s disappointment. And disappointment is really part of life. And kids need to learn how to be disappointed and not collapse.”

Quinones’ exhortations to his Town Hall audiences seemed energized with an almost evangelical fervor.

“I urge you to think broadly about alliances that you can participate in with other people. Don’t be discouraged if the number of deaths keeps rising or don’t drop the way they should.

“It’s invigorating, it’s exciting, pregnant with new chances … We are seeing Americans in an era of great political division come together locally … Real solid change happens piecemeal, and piecemeal is not sexy. It doesn’t make the evening news. But have no doubt about the importance of this kind of work.”