Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

FESTIVAL OF IDEAS ; Author Talk Covers Roots of US Opiate Epidemic

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

FESTIVAL OF IDEAS ; Author Talk Covers Roots of US Opiate Epidemic

Article excerpt

Sam Quinones' book, "Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, started with a series of stories he read about black tar heroin deaths in Huntington. He said he did a little research and found a very small percentage of the population in West Virginia is foreign-born.

"I knew it was made in Mexico, and it did not cross the Mississippi River, he said. "So what was it doing in West Virginia?

Quinones, a former crime reporter who spent 10 years living in Mexico, spoke about his journey to answer that question on Monday evening at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences as part of West Virginia University's annual Festival of Ideas. The event was co- sponsored by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Quinones described a perfect storm that led to the heroin epidemic in the country. In the 1990s, as Mexican immigrants devised a system for selling black-tar heroin like pizza in the United States, pharmaceutical corporations were peddling their opiate painkillers as non-addictive.

He recounted a conversation with a Drug Enforcement Agency agent from Philadelphia, who told him the heroin in the area was coming from one town in Mexico.

Quinones wrote to about 20 of the immigrants who had been arrested. One responded, and told him they were from a small town in Nayarit, Mexico.

In Xalisco, Nayarit, selling heroin meant a chance at financial security, with enough money to buy jeans that were all the rage at the time, Levi 501s.

"If you walked around the plaza of Xalisco in Levi 501 jeans, every girl wanted to talk to you, he said.

They were smooth when selling their product.

"They're not going to kill each other, he said. "They know each other. How do you take clients from your friends? Discounts. Customer service & You need an entire strategy of marketing and discounting. That was how this system spread - not through the barrel of a gun.

And why was there an appetite for heroin?

Heroin and prescription painkillers - both opiates - act on the same parts of the brain.

Quinones described a sort of "revolutionary fervor that took place in the 1990s when doctors were urged to recognize pain as the fifth vital sign and prescribe painkillers. …

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