Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones; Bloomsbury (384 pages, $28.00)
First declared by President Nixon, the war on drugs was always already political. Nixon aide John Erlichman later commented on its origins:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
A decade later, President Reagan announced that illicit drugs were a national security threat. “We’re making no excuses for drugs—hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” Announced three weeks before the 1982 midterm elections, Reagan’s initiative both intensified and militarized the drug war.
Not all drugs were bad, of course. The Reagan administration lavished benefits on Big Pharma, and Congress passed laws that extended patent protections and monopoly rights for brand-name drugs. But even with illegal narcotics, the Reagan administration applied a double standard. As we know from the Kerry Committee report of 1989, CIA officials knew that Nicaraguan drug dealers were selling powder and crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Nobody lifted a finger to stop it. They also knew that the profits supported the Nicaraguan contras, whom the Reagan administration actively (and illegally) aided in their efforts to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.
As the drug war dragged on, it netted users who didn’t fit Erlichman’s description. A decade ago, we learned that Rush Limbaugh abused Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller also known as hillbilly heroin. He was arrested but served no jail time; Palm Beach prosecutors dropped the charge after Limbaugh agreed to continue his treatment. “I actually thank God for my addiction to pain pills,” he told Fox News in 2009, “because I learned more about myself in rehab than I would have ever learned otherwise.” In particular, he realized he had been trying too hard to be liked in his personal life. But after seven weeks of treatment, he emerged with “zero feelings of inadequacy.” Limbaugh’s skirmish in the drug war turned out to be a voyage of personal growth and self-discovery.
While the Limbaugh story played out, many American cities were experiencing large increases in the use of black tar heroin imported from Mexico. These weren’t cities previously associated with that drug; rather, they were places like Salt Lake City, Boise, Charlotte, Portland, and Columbus. For years, local law enforcement noticed unarmed dealers making home deliveries in small quantities. Even when they made arrests, the cases were minor and often led to deportation. And because police officers rarely communicated with their counterparts in other mid-size cities, they failed to see the larger pattern.
As Sam Quinones shows in Dreamland, the Oxycontin and heroin stories were closely linked. A Los Angeles Times reporter, Quinones learned that black tar heroin wasn’t produced or distributed by violent Mexican cartels; rather, he traced it to the tiny state of Nayarit and its ranchero culture. The opium was grown locally, and tight-knit families sent wave after wave of polite farm boys to deliver balloons of heroin to white suburbanites in the United States. The service was excellent, and users learned that they could maintain a daily heroin habit for the price of a six-pack of premium beer.
The Xalisco Boys, as law enforcement called the Nayarit operators, spread quickly across the American west. They thrived, it seemed, in every city serviced by US Air out of Phoenix. In reading about them, I was reminded of an ironic passage from T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel, The Tortilla Curtain. In describing coyotes, a nature writer also commented on the influx of Mexican immigrants:
The coyote is not to blame—he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of opportunities available to him … The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where life is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable.
Eventually the Xalisco Boys moved east across the Mississippi River. By that time, Big Pharma had aggressively marketed OxyContin for chronic pain relief. Its campaign hinged on industrious self-delusion. Distorting a stray remark in a prestigious medical journal, one pharmaceutical firm persuaded American doctors that Oxycontin and other opiates weren’t addictive. That claim contradicted everything those doctors learned in medical school, but many went along with the program. Between 1997 and 2002, OxyContin prescriptions soared from 670,000 to 6.2 million. One 2004 survey indicated that 2.4 million Americans used a prescription pain reliever non-medically for the first time within the previous year; that was more than the estimated number of Americans who tried marijuana for the first time. Once patients were well and truly hooked on opiates, many switched to black tar heroin, which was cheap and easy to acquire. In effect, American pharmaceutical firms opened up new markets for the Xalisco Boys, who delivered heroin like pizza to America’s suburbs.
Dreamland is a tale of two artificial and highly permeable membranes. One separates legal and illegal drugs, the other Mexico and the United States. Quinones is perfectly positioned to tell that double story. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, he became a crime reporter in Stockton, a mid-size city in the Central Valley that was struggling with gangs and a crack cocaine epidemic. (After Stockton became Ground Zero for the subprime mortgage crisis, Forbes magazine described it as “one of America’s most miserable cities.”) In 1994, Quinones traveled to Mexico, where he planned to study Spanish for three months. He stayed for a decade working as a freelance reporter. What Quinones learned there informed his first two books about immigration, the border, ranchero culture, and the drug trade. He eventually returned to California and worked for the Los Angeles Times until last year.
Quinones brings all of his considerable talent and experience to bear on this sprawling story. Few American journalists can match his narrative skills or crime chops, which he combines with an ever rarer understanding of Mexican culture. His description of Nayarit is especially evocative; you can see practically hear the bandas playing at the feria, taste the cerveza, and feel the crisp new Levis the drug operatives brought home by the dozens.
Toward the end of Dreamland, Quinones shows how some American communities began enforcing their drug laws differently when they realized that their white, middle-class neighbors and family members were the perps. It was a reminder, if any were needed, that the war on drugs has always been a civil war. When will we bind up the nation’s wounds and care for those who have borne the battle?