It now appears that within the NIH push is what is described to me as “a lot” of money (though how much is as yet unknown) to establish three research centers around the country. Here are the guidelines for applying for that money.
Sounds like it might be a good moment for folks in the tri-state Ohio River Valley, so badly hit by the epidemic and deindustrialization, to marshal some forces and look to the future of what such a center can mean for research, dollars, and attracting PhDs to the area — and what all that might mean, in turn, for regional economic development.
They might also consider, as I wrote two years ago, what such a center could mean for all those recovering addicts now studying to be drug counselors and social workers, who might be hired to help in the studies such a center would fund.
After so many years of negative behavior, many I’ve met are now eager to be part of something positive and something bigger than themselves. Harnessing them could mean a massive infusion of new energy to a region that’s lost a lot of it.
Our national opiate-addiction epidemic is different from other American drug scourges for many reasons.
It’s the deadliest and the most widespread. It didn’t begin with drug mafias, but through the promotion of narcotic painkillers by pharmaceutical companies to doctors, who were pressured by we Americans, demanding an easy solution
to our pain.
But the epidemic is also remarkable for whom it has forced to its frontlines.
Librarians make up one such group.
I’m in Ohio this week, speaking at four regional conferences of librarians around the state. Today was Gallipolis — pop. 3500, in rural Gallia County, along the quiet, majestic Ohio River.
I stayed after my talk to listen to a panel made up of a university librarian, an elementary school librarian, and a public librarian talking about their experiences with this epidemic.
We heard about needles in the bushes, about how a child who lives in a drug house smells, about calling 911 because a customer had overdosed in a bathroom, about the look of some people who come into the library high. The epidemic has made danger zones of innocuous public places.
One school librarian, I was told, suspects two girls at her school are being abused. They come to school smelling badly. She takes their clothes home and washes them.
I was also struck by the stories many in the audience (80 people or so) had to tell about addiction in their families. Several librarians were raising their addicted relatives’ children.
Librarians are also perfectly poised, though, to be great catalysts for change – community organizers in the fight against this plague. That’s what I believe. They have the spaces, the local trust and credibility, and often small towns need folks like librarians to bring them together — and this is happening.
As I said to the group I spoke to, who better than purveyors of the book to be the leaders in this fight.
Plus, librarians are looking for new roles to play – rebranding libraries as community centers, places where people can come together. This catastrophe is offering libraries and librarians that moment to reinvent themselves towns and counties.
In the afternoon, I drove through the pristine southern Ohio farmland – white houses, white churches, silver siloes, blue sky, and acres of green corn.
I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Washington Court House, another small town with a bunch of opiate addiction problems.
Tomorrow Dayton – then Findlay and, finally, Twinsburg.
Next week I speak in Weber County, Utah, and after that Brunswick County, North Carolina.
All frontlines in America’s epidemic of opiate addiction.
When the Senate’s health-care bill died this week, it was worth noting the few who led the revolt.
Most were senators from states hardest hit by our epidemic of opiate addiction:
Maine (Susan Collins), West Virginia (Shelly Moore Capito), Utah (Mike Lee), Ohio (Rob Portman).
“I didn’t come to Washington to hurt people,” Shelly Moore Capito said.
Let’s leave aside how the bill would have done away with basic health care for millions of working folks and provided a tax cut for wealthy people.
One of the biggest problems with it, I think, was that it would have reversed Medicaid expansion and that meant taking away coverage for drug rehabilitation from hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions of them.
I could not understand how that was a good idea.
It was also interesting to see how, as the debate progressed through the spring to now, a lot of people began to realize what they were losing.
In so many areas where Donald Trump did best in November’s election, areas he promised to make great again, there is a documented need for massive investment in more drug rehabilitation capacity, not less. That is not an opinion. What exists is saturated. Getting into rehab takes weeks, months. Many addicts have no resources of their own with which to seek treatment.
I wrote in another post that opiate addiction was the crucial element in Trump’s victories in several states that were in turn essential to his capturing the presidency.
Eight months later, the Senate’s health-care carnival emphasized my belief that this issue is one of the most potent political forces of our time.
In the spring of 2015, shortly after Dreamland was released, I received a call from Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisor for health issues. Hillary was feeling the ferocity of parents in Iowa and New Hampshire from all walks of life, horrified at their children’s addiction and not knowing where to turn. This surprised the candidate, her advisor told me.
I spoke with her for about ninety minutes. I told her that I thought this was the great silent issue in America today and whoever truly owned it, embraced it, treated it as a thing of the heart, would have a good chance of getting votes from unexpected places, but that this probably would not be felt in opinion polls ahead of time. Mrs. Clinton did some of that, but never enough, and in the end she wrote a position paper and that amounted to most of her campaign’s attention to opiate addiction. I might be wrong, but she didn’t seem to understand the latent power of the issue. Least she didn’t act on it. That was a huge mistake.
Politicians would do well to better understand the deep well of pain and anxiety surrounding, and thus the political power within, this issue. It’s not something expressed easily in polls. People aren’t likely to admit to a pollster on a phone that a loved one is an addict.
But it’s there and dims the view of the future of so many people, the prospects of so many towns and counties, the economies of so many regions, and thus is of paramount importance to them. Right up there with jobs – connected inextricably with jobs, in fact. In so many depressed areas, huge numbers of folks can’t pass an employer’s drug test.
Nor does it take many addicts for that foreboding to spread. A few cases in a small town, I think, are all that’s needed. People see it hit almost anyone and seemingly at random – like a plague – including families who before had no connection to the drug world or the criminal justice system. Soon everyone’s view of the future turns negative.
On top of that, today we have the increasing nationwide notoriety of the issue as compared with just two years ago. An awakening has taken place in those short years – a reckoning and a truth-telling when before there was subterfuge and fabrication.
Overall, this is healthy – for the families now telling the truth and for the country, I think.
But one effect is that the knowledge, and thus dread, has spread to even families untouched by addiction.
In that room where 13 of them put that bill together, Senate Republicans didn’t seem to understand that.
That was a huge mistake.
Because in the small towns or suburbs where folks live, they now know the high school’s quarterback has landed in jail again, and that their pastor’s daughter died from an overdose and that it wasn’t a heart attack after all.
Her obituary doesn’t provide a lot of detail, but it does provide some. It sounded as if she spent a lot of time in rehab, then relapsed each time. Finally, when she looked to be putting the worst behind her, she relapsed again and overdosed and died.
It’s an extraordinarily sad story – and it must have been very difficult for her parents to write the obituary.
It made me think of what her death can tell us. First, all addiction seems to involve relapse. I quit smoking (and started again) nine times before I finally quit for good – at 37.
But I lived through my cigarette relapses. With opiates, particularly given the amount of supply of dope on the street, getting out of treatment is like Russian Roulette. People go in, detox, get clean. Their tolerance to narcotics drops. They leave rehab and do well, then they relapse. With these drugs, and their prevalence and potency on the street, relapse too often means death.
It feels good to say, `We can’t arrest our way out of this.’ I agree. We do need expanded treatment. But, frankly, that also feels too easy.
My feeling is, when it comes to opiates, we have to arrest our way out of this before we can treat our way out of it. That’s a bit discombobulated, I know. What I mean is that we need to address supply on the street. That comes only with arrests. It seems to me dangerous to assume that in modern America people can get out of rehab and go home to areas awash in dope and be expected to stay alive, given the likelihood of relapse and the potency and controlling nature of opiates. It’s not cigarettes people are relapsing on. It’s pain pills and, especially now, heroin and fentanyl.
This is a supply story and has been from the beginning. Huge amounts of very potent opiates were unleashed on the country – first in the form of prescription opiate painkillers. When millions of people grew addicted to these pills, a lot of them looked for cheaper alternatives. Heroin traffickers, mostly from Mexico, slowly realized that these folks were a growing market and expanded their offering.
But it all has to do with supply. No treatment has much chance against a cheap and plentiful supply of potent dope.
It’s why doctors and the medical establishment need to continue reassessing how they prescribe opiate painkillers.
It’s also why we need to make Mexico a sustained priority. I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t think building a wall — or rather, more walls — at the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to do much to slow heroin trafficking. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seriously address Mexico’s continued production and exporting of this drug. Ninety percent of our heroin comes from Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department. It’s unconscionable that one country should export so much of this junk. China fought a war with England in the 1800s, twice, over this issue. We don’t need wars with Mexico, but it does seem to me that we need to make this the priority it deserves to be – and walls are a distraction from the real work that needs doing.
This young woman’s death also shows why we probably need to make much greater use of what’s known as medically assisted treatment – the use of drugs as replacements, as shields. These include methadone, Vivitrol and Suboxone – they either take away the craving for heroin or block overdoses.
It’s unreasonable, I think, to assume that addicts can go back to these same neighborhoods, where opiate supply is plentiful, without some sort of protection, some kind of shield.
The last couple years have shown how dangerous that is.
A DREAMLAND PODCAST – John Russell is 26 and an organic farmer, raising melons in rural Ohio, not far from Columbus. This year he ran for the Ohio state legislature as a Democrat – and lost badly.
I had the chance to talk with Russell today.
We had a wide-ranging conversation, about his decision to go into farming, about his campaign, about Donald Trump, as well as job loss and opiate addiction in America’s Heartland, PC culture, the challenges Democrats face in rural areas.
He’s one of the few, it seems, to go away to college then return to a rural community. So many towns have lost young people to the cities where the jobs are.
We talked about that as well, and about what happened to guys on his high school football team.
This is the first interview I did like this, via Skype, so I’m still working out the kinks, and there are a few buzzes and etc. So please bear with me.
This fall I traveled a lot to Heartland areas to talk about a book I’d written about opiate addiction in America, and this provided me with a close view of the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
The areas where I spoke were particularly hard hit by narcotic abuse — rural Michigan, southern Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and several towns in rural Ohio.
The prevalence of Trump/Pence yard signs in these areas, particularly by mid-October, was stunning. As I traveled, it seemed palpable, this connection between Trump support and opiate addiction.
Not that there weren’t other reasons people supported him. A suffocating political correctness on the left is another factor in his appeal, I believe.
But nothing darkens your view of your present and future prospects quite as thoroughly as addiction to opiates (pills or heroin) in your family, on your street, or in your town. With opiates comes a fatalism and negativity that clouds a town or a family’s feeling about its world, even as unemployment falls and the economy improves.
In theory, addiction knows no race. In reality, though, our national opiate scourge is almost entirely white. Very few non-whites are among the newly addicted to prescription pain pills, then heroin. In three years of book research, I met one.
Though this scourge has affected every region of the country, it is felt most intensely in rural, suburban – Heartland – areas of America where Donald Trump did extraordinarily well.
Some of these areas did not fully rebound from the Great Recession of 2007 (southern Ohio). Others fared much better (North Carolina). A common denominator, I think political scientists will find, is that in these areas since the last presidential election the incidence of opiate addiction spread, grew deadlier, more public, and went from pain pills to heroin. In southern Ohio, where heroin has hit like pestilence, particularly Appalachia, Trump trounced his opponent in counties that Mitt Romney barely won four years earlier – though unemployment in many of these counties is at its lowest level in years, sometimes decades.
Shannon Monnat, a rural sociologist and demographer at Penn State I talked with, found strong correlations between suicides and fatal drug overdoses in counties where Trump’s increase was larger that the share of the vote compared to Romney’s four years earlier – this in six Rust Belt states, another half-dozen state in New England and all or part of the eight states comprising Appalachia.
One place I spoke was Hocking County (pop. 28,000). Hocking has lost coal mining jobs in recent years, though its unemployment rate dropped this fall to 4.5 percent, the lowest in more than 20 years. (It hit 14 percent in 2010.) But Hocking has also grown far more aware of its pill/heroin problem. Overdose deaths are up. Its drug court is among the first in the state to use Vivitrol, the opiate blocker. Trump earned 66 percent of the vote in the county Romney carried with 49 percent four years ago.
Opiate addiction – to pain pills or heroin — is the closest thing to enslavement that we have in America today. It is brain-changing, relentless, and unmercifully hard to kick. Children who complain at the slightest household chore while sober will, once addicted, march like zombies through the snow for miles, endure any hardship or humiliation, for more dope.
In many of these regions, folks were unprepared for it and, what’s more, believed they had done nothing to deserve it. Kids with no criminal record, star athletes, pastors’, cops’, and mayors’ kids all got addicted. Parents who’d imagined some glowing life script for their newborns years before were, as those kids reached young adulthood, confronted instead by late-night collect calls from jail, lying, stealing, conniving and that child’s body seemingly occupied by a mutant beast. Then came a felony record. Suddenly parents were co-signing for apartments, providing money and transportation for their addicted beloved, now 24, to take a GED class.
Though the number of actual addicts is small, the epidemic’s political impact has been substantial.
First because the states where the epidemic is most intense were crucial to the victor – whoever it was going to be.
Also, though, the opiate addiction rippled far beyond each individual addict. Addiction colored the lives of siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbors, pastors, teachers. As parents lost their fear of speaking out in the last two years, the problem emerged from the shadows, media coverage expanded, and now everyone for miles around was aware of it. County budgets buckled. Merchants saw theft increasing.
In several counties I visited, employers reported that more than half their job applicants couldn’t pass a drug screen. So though unemployment numbers fell, a good chunk of that was because many people were too hooked to seek work. Imagine what that does to a county’s productivity, and its buoyancy of spirit. It explains how a declining unemployment rate could create not optimism, but the foreboding that seemed to motivate many voters.
People also grew to understand that virtually all our heroin comes from or through Mexico – which is why it is cheaper and more potent than ever in our history. That did nothing to engender love for our southern neighbor in regions that had lost factories as well as kids. Nor did it make them feel that we have a serious and modern partner in Mexico when it comes to criminal justice and law enforcement.
This story plays out today with intensity in several of the states crucial to Trump’s victory – Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. It does the same in states he was assumed to win: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and others. That these states – largely rural, religious, and white – are now our heroin beltways amounts to a stunning change in our national culture and one that most people in those areas became aware of only recently.
Equally stunning is that New York, California and Illinois – including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, once our heroin hotspots – are well down the list of states ranked by addiction rates. Hillary Clinton won each of them.
In many of the most affected regions, moreover, people, by and large, have taken as self-evident Ronald Reagan’s dictum that “government is the problem” — the starkest threat to personal freedom. The private sector and the free market are, therefore, to be exalted; government starved. (This despite a deep reliance on government programs: Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, SSDI, worker’s compensation, food stamps, welfare, farm subsidies, etc.) Confederate flags and 2nd Amendment bumper stickers were common amid the Trump signs I saw.
The irony is that behind this drug plague is a story of how the private sector introduced the most serious widespread threat to personal freedom in America today – opiate addiction. All profits from the massive prescribing of narcotic pain pills have accrued to the private sector, mainly pharmaceutical companies; all costs of addiction to those pills, and then heroin, are borne by the public sector. Indeed, for years, about the only people fighting the opiate scourge, my research showed, were government employees: cops and prosecutors, public health nurses and CDC statisticians, county social workers, judges and ER doctors, DEA agents, coroners and others.
The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin, has been estimated by Forbes magazine to be now one of the country’s wealthiest, with an estimated net worth of $14 billion, due to $35 billion in sales of the drug since it was released in 1996.
All this, I believe, helps explain the reception to Donald Trump’s populist message – including rejection of free trade and other sacred cows of Republican elites and conservative theorists. (“Worst Election Ever” proclaimed a post-election article from the conservative Hoover Institution.)
In these areas, too, the “throw away the key” approach to drug addiction was unquestioned dogma until the opiate scourge. That is changing. Democrats may still not get elected in a region like northern Kentucky, for instance, but Republicans who talk only tough on crime now have a hard time there, too – so harsh is the pill and heroin problem.
It’s likely that many of the regions where Trump enjoyed such support will require massive investment in drug treatment before they can be great again. (Ohio Gov. John Kasich realized that and went around his Republican-led state legislature a couple years ago to mandate Medicaid coverage for all Ohioans — largely because it gave people coverage for drug treatment.)
Will such an investment come from a president whose election seems to have so much to do with the opiate epidemic, yet who appears to have thought little about how to expand drug treatment?
How will people in these areas react to dismantling Obamacare, which provides coverage for addiction treatment that they didn’t have before?
In counties where half of job applicants fail drug screens, will the chambers of commerce line up to do away with the system?
Like so much that sprang from those Heartland yard signs, I guess we’ll see.
These next several weeks I’ll be traveling to many parts of the country for speaking engagements about Dreamland: Dallas/Fort Worth, Huntington WV, Indianapolis (twice), Logan, OH, Salt Lake, and South Shore KY, among other places (full list below).
These follow many events over the last year. I can’t wait!
It’s been wonderful, after spending so long writing about a fairly depressing topic, to see communities like Scott County IN and Marysville OH plan to use Dreamland to begin discussions/alliances focused on combating the problem of opiate addiction, now nationwide.
I’m a storyteller not a policymaker nor an advocate, but I do feel overwhelmed at times at the intensity of the response and so honored that these towns would invite me to visit them to talk about this.
I want to say thank you to the hundreds of folks I’ve already met while signing books at numerous events – half of whom have stories so powerful that they might have ended up in Dreamland had I met them while I was writing. It’s become one of the joys of touring, meeting folks like this, going to places like these.
I note, too, that many of these place are not towns on a typical book tour. But this is not a typical book nor, I suppose, a typical time.
I love that I’ve been able to visit Peoria IL (home of Caterpillar) and Chillicothe OH (Go Cavaliers!), but it also shows you where the problems with opiate addiction are now in our country.
Anyway, here’s the full lineup:
Sept 19: Scott County, IN (Various events, including Austin High School Auditorium, 7-9pm)
Sept 20: Van Wert, OH
Sept 21: Marion, OH (Palace Pavilion, 3:30-5pm)
Sept 22: Dallas/Fort Worth, TX, Hurst Conference Center, (When the Prescription Becomesthe Problem: A community response to the Opiate Epidemic)
Sept 29: Salt Lake City, UT, Sheraton Hotel (Beyond the Needle and the Damage Done: A law enforcement and health care response to the opioid epidemic)
Oct 1: Huntington WV, Ohio River Book Festival, (12:45-2pm)
Oct 3: South Shore, KY (Recovery Works)
Oct 4: Zanesville, OH (and environs, various events)
Oct 5: Columbus, OH (North Broadway United Methodist Church)
Oct 6: Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Hospital Association)
Oct 6: Logan, OH (Hocking Middle School)
Oct 12: Marysville, OH
Oct 13: Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Attorney General’s Conference, Indiana Convention Center – Indiana Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Task Force, public invited)
Oct 14: Des Moines, IA (Iowa Medical Examiners Convention)
Oct 24: Hillsdale MI (Hillsdale College, various events)
Opiate addiction appears to be emerging as an issue in the presidential campaign, as well it should.
I’ve read a lot that does seem to be too nuanced on either side of this topic.
Here are a few of my thoughts:
Virtually all our heroin comes from Mexico, or comes from Colombia through Mexico.
Originating now in our hemisphere, heroin now changes hands less and travels far shorter distances than it did when so much of it came from Turkey or Burma (1970s).
All that means that it’s cheaper here than ever, it’s more prevalent, and it’s far more potent. And all that, in turn, has a lot to do with why people begin using it in the first place (cost), and then stay addicted (prevalence), or relapse after rehab, and then why they die more frequently (potency).
Used to be that people (addicts from the 1970s) lived for many years on heroin – when it was more expensive and less potent and more arduous to find. A lot of heroin addicts who started in those years did die, but they died during the AIDS epidemic from sharing needles, not so much from overdoses.
Now heroin addicts aren’t living long; They’re dying young and quickly. I believe that’s because so much of the drug comes from Mexico, making it cheaper, more potent and more prevalent than ever.
When uncut or less cut, heroin is easy to conceal because it’s so concentrated – again because now it comes from Mexico, which is so close.
So you don’t need trucks to get a lot of heroin across – though trucks have been used. A lot of people walk it across at the border crossings hidden in a purse, or a backpack, or on their person.
There’s a market for heroin because there is a demand for it.
That said, I believe that supply is fundamental to this issue – supply created this demand, just as it did during the cocaine days. We didn’t have a huge demand for cocaine before Colombians began smuggling tons of it up through Florida. Likewise, we didn’t have huge numbers of heroin addicts before doctors began prescribing enormous quantities of opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin, etc. and a lot of people got addicted, then switched to heroin, which is now, as I said, cheaper than ever.
Heroin traffickers, as I hope I made clear in Dreamland, came late to this party. They followed the demand for opiates that had been created by massive overprescribing by doctors of these painkillers.
Just as we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, we likely cannot treat our way out of it, either. Particularly with treatment costing so much and taking so long. Typical treatment that has any chance of success, from what addiction specialists tell me, is a minimum of nine months. One doc I know insists a year is the minimum.
Curtailing supply is thus essential to giving each attempt at rehab and recovery a greater chance of success. So that every recovering addict isn’t bombarded with dope at every turn, as they are in so many parts of the country today.
That said, among the steps I think we need to take – some of which are articulated by the CDC recently – is retraining doctors to question why they prescribe these drugs and, if they’re necessary, in what quantities. For example, for wisdom tooth extraction, 60 Vicodin is common. That seems crazy to me.
Seems like 6-12 pills would be reasonable, and that the patient should return if he needs more. Doctors prescribe so many of these pills out the gate because they don’t want to see patients a second time, and they know that insurance companies often won’t reimburse for those follow-up visits, no matter how few.
So this problem will require that insurance companies change their practices, and reimburse doctors for follow-up visits for the (again) few patients who might need more of those pills after routine surgery.
Walls have had a healthy effect on the border. Tijuana (two walls, as I said) is an excellent example of that. When it was the main crossing point – 1960s until mid-1990s – rapes, robberies, assaults and murders were common, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then the first wall went up, then the second. Now it’s calm on that border line. May be a weird symbol for a globalized world, but murders and rapes are rare now.
Despite those walls, heroin will seep in, through the cracks, in ways that seem to me impossible, or extraordinarily expensive, to stop. And that’s not the supply that caused this problem.
Back from a busy trip and I wanted to thank Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin for his kind words recommending my book, Dreamland, during his first budget address to the Commonwealth and Kentucky state legislators last week.
I’m very honored and touched by what he said, and that he followed those words with a commitment to increase funding for opiate-addiction treatment over each of the next two years. [Click here to view his speech. The part I’m referring to begins about 59:30.]
When I began writing the book that became Dreamland, I occasionally received strange reactions from people wondering what on earth I was thinking writing about heroin. Didn’t that, after all, belong to the 1970s?
I didn’t think so. I felt it rumbling beneath the surface and ready to explode, just no one was talking about it in 2012 and 2013, and even in 2014. Most of those who knew about it from personal or family experience were ashamed to speak.
So it feels satisfying that the book is helping people in a position of public influence, among them the governor of Kentucky, a state overwhelmed by this scourge, understand it, talk openly about it, and make policy to address it.
Storytelling will do that. That’s what I’ve long believed. Thanks, governor!
I don’t think I’ll have a nicer time, as an author, than I’ve had in the last few weeks.
For starters, one morning Entertainment Weekly selected Dreamland as among the year’s 10 best books (“like a David Simon TV Show gone cosmic”). That afternoon, Bloomberg Business ran a piece with Princeton Prof. Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner for economics, recommending the book as his favorite of the year.
Both ends of the culture endorsing a book on the same day – I don’t think that’s happened before.
I appreciated that because when I began this book I thought I was writing a drug-crime story. Midway through, I realized the book was really about where we are as a country, about what happens when, as a culture, we shred community, export our jobs, build isolation and call it suburbs, claw at government and forgive the private sector its trespasses, and exalt consumption and seek pleasure and call them happiness.
Heroin is simply the embodiment of values we’ve fostered for 35 years. Isolation is its natural habitat. Doesn’t have to be that way. The antidote to heroin isn’t naloxone; it’s community.
I know, it’s hucksterism. But the rules for authors these days are:
1) Write like hell; 2) Rewrite always; 3) Read a lot; 4) Talk to lots of different people; 5) Pay attention; and 6) Always be branding, marketing and promoting yourself because if you don’t, no one else will.
So, given No. 6, I’ll just quietly let you know that, in addition to EW and Bloomberg, in the last few weeks Dreamland was selected in “Best Books of the Year” lists by … Amazon.com, Slate.com, the WSJ, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Audible.
(In the two weeks after posting this, Buzzfeed, Daily Beast, Texas Observer, and the Guardian also added Dreamland to their Books of the Year lists. My thanks to each of them.)
Drug Czar Michael Botticelli named it his favorite book of the year – that was nice of him. So did the governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin. Nice of the governor to do that, too.
Ever since beginning work on my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the way opiates isolate those addicted to them.
As I wrote and researched, they grew into a metaphor for modern American life.
Opiate addiction, seems to me, is some kind of final expression of our own destruction of community, our lack of connection across the country – both in poor communities and wealthy ones.
We exalt consumption and the individual over community and have for a long time now.
These drugs seem to fit that; they turn everyone who abuses them into self-absorbed, lonely hyper-consumers.
The poem below was written by Andrew Smith, one of the thousands of Americans who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose. He was 24.
His mother, Margie Borth, discovered it after his death.
“There were several writings, this one is about scoring heroin and the lonely world that became his life,” she wrote, sending me the poem. “His brilliance still shines in his dark, sad words. His best friend described this as `hauntingly beautiful.’ I knew nothing of his addiction until just five weeks before he died. I was in a blur of grief when I first read it. But now I do see the beauty of his writing. I miss him so much, just like the thousands of other parents who are thrown into this nightmare. “
Simulate the Static
by Andrew Smith
The waiting, oh god
The parking lots, the bathrooms, the empty parks that close after dark
The driveways, the bus stops, the car backseats
The posh bank lobbies, flea bag motel rooms, gas station pumps
Oak trees, palms, and retention ponds meant to beautify
The ditches, the swamps, and one off dead roads that lead to nowhere
And the loneliness of that trap.
The broken windows,
The made for TV dinners
The busted speakers blaring bass on a burner cell phone
The children going hungry, ignored in the corner
Staring at a broken television; simulating static.
The hangers-on, the worn out, the washed up
The good, the bad, the ugly
and the pretty young white girls with the blank eyes
Staring in awe at this newfound world.
The sun is setting and it’s starting to rain
My eyes are closed and I’m wishing I’m somewhere else.
When I hear a tap on my passenger window
Within 30 seconds, he’s gone
And the wait seems like a thousand centuries ago.
In this moment, I rest my eyes a second
Breathe a sigh of relief and know that all is right with the world
I was interested in knowing more about that huge heroin bust in New York City last week.
The seizure totaled 154 pounds (and $2 million in cash), the largest ever in that city – larger even than the legendary French Connection bust of the 1970s (100+ pounds). Which is saying something, as New York was the U.S. heroin hub for most of the last century.
I was surprised to see the traffickers were from Mexico. Virtually all the heroin coming into NYC and New England has been, since the 1980s, from Colombia – that’s what I understood.
So I reached out to a law enforcement source in the NYC metro region who works heroin. The source said that while the traffickers were Mexicans, the heroin was from Colombia: “Colombians have almost totally removed themselves from the distribution directly in the US.”
This is because:
“1. Colombian communities have matured and the criminal elements have for the large part been killed, jailed or been deported.
2. The Colombian drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) can make money still selling it to other DTO’s in Colombia and/or in Mexico and parts nearby without the fear of the long arms of US authorities. Example: If they sell to Mex DTO they make $5,000 with minimal exposure. If they sell in US directly they make $10,000, but with possible major problems.
3. For Colombians, they can make major profits if they can get it to Western Africa and/or Europe with less exposure.
4. In today’s world, post 09/11, the Achilles Heel entry point into the US is over the southwest border. That area is within the realm of the Mex DTO’s. The Colombians feel they have more control if they conduct business in their area of operation and have less problems.”
All of which is to say that what happened to cocaine in the late 1980s – Mexican DTOs took over the trade from Colombians and, fueled by those profits, began the growth into the organizations they are today – is now happening with heroin as well.
If that’s so, it’s likely there’ll be more busts like this one, given the nationwide demand nowadays for the drug generated by widespread addiction to opiate painkillers.
This epidemic is neither a red nor a blue issue. Thus I hope candidates from both parties will respond as well. I’ll be happy to chat with them, if they want to call.
I’d hope, moreover, they would focus not only on heroin, but on the broader problem of overprescribing of opiate painkillers, which so often provide the gateway to heroin. (Pain pills have their legitimate role in medicine, but too often are massively and unnecessarily prescribed.)
But there’s another important point in this. I believe parents of addicted children need to use this approaching presidential campaign as a way of magnifying their voices.
As a longtime journalist, I know that the most poignant stories are the ones that can have the most impact. Sadly, many parents up to now have kept silent, ashamed or simply worn out by their children’s addiction.
Another family has stepped up to acknowledge in an obituary that a child has died of a heroin overdose.
Daniel Joseph “DJ” Wolanski, of Mahoning County in Ohio, died April 20. Read his obituary.
It must be so difficult for this family to come forward and say this publicly. But this scourge has spread because so many people before them have kept quiet, allowing the rest of us to imagine that the problem really isn’t as bad as it has become.
So it’s important to acknowledge the courage of those who do step up, speak publicly.
The obituary reads….
“Over the course of DJ’s life, he made many bad decisions including experimenting with drugs. Unfortunately, his five year addiction and battle with heroin took over. His family and friends truly loved him and tried everything from being supportive to tough love as he struggled with his own inner demons and heroin. …
“DJ often talked about the growing number of friends that he had lost to this destructive drug and how it destroyed families. They used to say it takes a community to raise a child. Today, we need to say that it takes a community to battle addiction. Someone you know is battling addiction; if your “gut instinct” says something is wrong, it most likely is. Get involved. Do everything within your power to provide help. Don’t believe the logical sounding reasons of where their money is going or why they act so different. Don’t believe them when they say they’re clean.”
Profound words – the way to attack a drug that turns every addict into a silo, a loner wrapped in a cocoon – is through community.
I’m on tour to promote Dreamland, and along the way I’ve have had conversations with parents of addicts, doctors, public health employees, and the public in general.
Often the conversation revolves around why this is a problem, and why it continues to be — if we see that massive prescribing of pain medication has clearly led to heroin addiction.
This letter from a nurse practitioner at a chronic-pain clinic in a mid-sized town in the western United States helps explain.
The clinic I work at has a reputation for liberal opioid/opiate prescribing and there is a culture of dependency and codependency that has been instilled by the owner. Prior to coming to this clinic I worked in a psych and drug rehab hospital in a rural part of the United States for five years. I saw all the patients that became addicted first by pain medication or other means. It is a struggle for me everyday to know that I now contribute to this problem.
Every day I try to have the conversation with patients on what it would be like to get off the medication. Most patients tell me no one has ever had that conversation with them. It makes it that more difficult because then I look like the jerk that wants them off their meds when every provider before me told them they would be on pain medication their entire life.
I have developed a reputation as being a terrible provider by many of the clinic’s patients. The front desk asks my medical assistants what it is like working with me since all they hear is terrible things about me.
Many people talk about going after to the doctors to stop this opioid epidemic. The problems I see are patients with terrible insurance that doesn’t cover comprehensive pain management. What I am stuck with is a person with limited resources and a 20-minute appointment and sometimes all I have left is medication. Most of my patients get upset with me, and laugh when I give them breathing exercises to perform.
I don’t start many people on pain medication but I have kept many people on medications that I sometimes don’t feel comfortable prescribing. I go out of my way to try to find alternatives to pain medication for my patients. My hope is that one day pain management is taken out of primary care completely. Pain is too complex to dealt with in a 20-minute appointment.
The other issue is patient satisfaction. That is a huge issue in emergency departments. I have spoken with many ER docs and it seems a lot of the care is driven by customer satisfaction. Doctors fear bad reviews from patients. I think this drives a lot of the pain medication prescriptions in EDs. Because of this, I have seen some of my patients get opioid/opiate prescriptions for relatively minor medical issues.
I have found some positives. Most patients I discharge for multiple violations of their medication agreements never come back. The ones that do often turn out to be my favorite patients. When I don’t worry about prescribing controlled substances with patients then we often get to work on lifestyle changes like better management of their chronic conditions or quitting smoking.
Anyways… I probably have a lot more to say but that seems like enough. Thank you for your time.