Ohio University

skip to main content

Grover Lecturer Sam Quinones recounts rise of the nation's opioid epidemic

Oct 13, 2017

The overprescribing of pills. An opportunistic, if not sinister, group from a small town in Mexico. The destruction of a pool...Sam Quinones, renowned author of the “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” took part in Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions’ Grover Lecture Series on Wednesday, Oct. 11 where he told the tale of how the opioid epidemic took hold of the country.

A reporter by trade, Quinones joined a team of reporters tackling the Mexican drug trafficking trade in the United States in 2009 and in March of that year, he came across statistics in Huntington, W. Va. that showed a dozen people had died over the course of six months in 2007 from black tar heroin overdoses.

Quinones was shocked the drug was so prevalent in this portion of Appalachia. His investigation led him to Columbus, Ohio where law enforcement reported that starting in the late 1990s Mexicans saturated the city with black tar heroin and were “selling heroin like pizza” including a telephone ordering system and delivery to the buyer’s address.

Quinones told the crowd in Walter Rotunda and those watching a livestream that all of the Mexicans were coming from the same town. He later discovered that town to be Jalisco.

Through an elaborate marketing system that included giving away heroin for current users to recruit new users, the “Jalisco boys” expanded the business throughout the country. 

But Quinones said the cartel would not have been able to gain a foothold if not for the overprescribing of pills in the country.

A culture that sought freedom from pain, pressure on doctors to change their view of pain management, and propaganda caused the area of Columbus, Cincinnati, eastern Kentucky and northern West Virginia to become “ground zero” for the opioid epidemic, according to Quinones.

Portsmouth, Ohio, Quinones said, was the poster child for the epidemic, specifically citing Dreamland, the name of the city’s pool. Dreamland was the gathering point for the city, a place where class division was torn down, a place that became the center of the town’s culture.

A city of that once boasted more than 40,000 people dropped to around 20,000 by 2010 as major employers, including shoe factories and a steel mill, closed. According to media reports, 9.7 million pills were prescribed in 2010 in the county where Portsmouth is located – more than 120 for every person and child in the county. The pills were largely supplied through the pill mills that rapidly popped up in the area. The county had 22 overdose deaths that year and the Oxycontin economy was born as pills became the unofficial tender of the city. Dreamland was torn down and replaced with asphalt and a strip mall.

The opioid epidemic didn’t start overnight and fixing it won’t happen overnight either, Quinones said. He added that he believes the way to do it is to rebuild communities.

He said there is no one solution to the problem but rather many solutions. From doctors reassessing their prescribing methods to more treatment centers instead of jails and taking greater personal accountability for health. Quinones shared that self-reliance also requires watching out for each other and that rebuilding communities in the face of an ever-isolated culture is a potential path to end the epidemic.