By Jacqueline Pitts, The Bottom Line
As the scourge of opioids and heroin continue to cause struggle and heartache in Kentucky and across the nation, the author of an award-winning book described as the “single most well researched, well written, and heartbreaking account on the plague of the opiate addiction,” detailed how the country got here and what must be done to address the epidemic in an interview with The Bottom Line ahead of his speech to Kentucky business leaders in July at the Kentucky Chamber Business Summit.
Sam Quinones is a journalist, storyteller, former LA Times reporter, and author of three acclaimed books of narrative nonfiction. His most recent book is Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.
Quinones told The Bottom Line he started writing Dreamland without much knowledge of the opioid crisis but was focused on the rise in heroin trafficking he witnessed as a reporter in Mexico for 10 years, where he wrote his first two books.
As he began his research, Quinones said it became clear to him the overprescribing of pain medications and the changes in how America shifted its approach to pain management opened up the growing market for heroin as people no longer have access to expensive opioids and turn to the cheaper option of heroin.
“That indiscriminate prescribing in huge amount, going in for a routine surgery and the pain is going to last 3-4 days and you come away with a doctor’s prescription for 30 days’ worth of pain pills and then a refill and then another refill after that…none of (this crisis) happens without that,” Quinones said. “In time, it just became pills for everybody—no matter what the pain, no matter your background. And all of that then creates the heroin problem we have today. But none of this happens at all without all the change in pain management that took place in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
When asked what will need to be done in order to address the opioid epidemic and what public policies could be put in place, the author stated there is not one simple solution and the country will have to do many things at once to tackle the issue. Among those items, he said, is lobbying insurance companies on reimbursement programs to treat pain without the painkillers as he said insurance company behavior is a critical part of the mix. Quinones also pointed to the need to revamp the curriculum for medical schools to examine how they teach pain treatment, and Americans looking more closely at the cause of their pain and making changes to their diet and exercise routines.
Quinones also stated the crisis will not be fixed overnight as the epidemic was created over the course of more than two decades and suggested easy fixes for pain management issues is how we got into the crisis in the first place and the public should give policymakers some breathing room and time to craft meaningful solutions.
As for what could come next, as the country often sees one drug scourge begin to decrease only to be followed by the rise of another substance, Quinones stated if policymakers and communities take the right actions and put critical policies in place while dealing with this crisis, it could help lessen the impact of the next issue.
The Dreamland author noted that many communities, including some in Kentucky, are already taking actions at the local level that will help solve the crisis including many initiatives centered around the prison system’s role in dealing with heroin and opioid addiction versus treatment and ensuring individuals get back on their feet after addiction.
“If we transform jail from an asset that creates drug addicts, which is what jail has been all across the country for decades, into something where addicts are in a nurturing place, which I’ve seen in Kentucky jails, a place where you can find help and rehab and others willing to work with you—if we can transform jail into something like that, it will help us in the next thing that comes along. It will help us address homelessness, it will help us address the next drug problem that comes along,” Quinones said.
“If we break down those silos and bring people together in ways they weren’t working together before, we will then have the infrastructure in place to be able to deal with the next thing. If we invest in treatment, if we do a lot of investing in other options besides incarceration, we will have a way of dealing with this that we didn’t have before for the next time. What we do now will either prepare us or again leave us unprepared. And I believe a lot of things I am seeing now are beginning to prepare us for maybe any drug problem, not just this one.”
Ahead of speaking at the Kentucky Chamber’s Business Summit in July, Quinones added the opioid crisis is many things and one of those is a business issue as he stated it is difficult to revive many sectors if companies are unable to find employees because they are unable to pass a drug test. He added the crisis is also an obstacle to many areas of economic development and progress.
Dreamland author Sam Quinones will serve as the opening keynote speaker on day two of the Kentucky Chamber’s Business Summit on Friday, July 20, 2018 at 8:45 a.m. to discuss his award-winning book and share his insights on the opioid challenges that have ensnared Kentucky and the nation. Register for the Business Summit and Annual Meeting taking place July 19 and 20 at the Omni Hotel in Louisville here.