Community: The Answer to the Opiate Epidemic

The following is taken directly from the Afterword of Sam Quinone’s bestselling book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” You can purchase a copy of this vital publication here.

BY THE TIME I BEGAN research for this book in 2012, we had, I believe, spent decades destroying community in America, mocking and clawing at the girdings of government that provide the public assets and infrastructure that we took for granted and that make communal public life possible. Meanwhile, we exalted the private sector. We beat Communism and thus came to believe the free market was some infallible god. Accepting this economic dogma, we allowed, encouraged, even, jobs to go overseas. We lavishly rewarded our priests of finance for pushing those jobs offshore. We demanded perfection from government and forgave the private sector its trespasses.

Part of the private sector developed a sense of welfare entitlement. Certainly, in this opiate scourge, it is the private sector that has taken the profits; the costs of dealing with the vast collateral damage have fallen to the public sector. A couple months after this book’s publication, Forbes counted the Sackler family ¹, and Raymond Sackler, the last remaining of the brothers, as the richest newcomer to the magazine’s list of “America’s Richest Families” – with an estimated net worth of $14 billion. All of that was due to sales of OxyCotin, which the magazine estimated at $35 billion since the drug’s release in 1996.²

We seemed to fear the public sphere. Parents hovered over kids. Alarmed at some menace out in public, they accompanied their kids everywhere they went. In one case, a couple was actually charged with allowing their nine-year-old daughter and her sister to go to the park alone. The term “free-range parenting” was coined to describe the daring parents who let their kids out of their sight. No wonder so many kids – boys mostly – were diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall and other drugs. (I wish someone would study the incidence of opiate addiction [in] teens and young adults of people who as kids were diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed drugs like Adderall.) They spent their lives indoors, cooped up, bouncing off the walls. I can say this because I was one: Boys are like dogs; they need to run and run and run.

When I was a boy in suburban Southern California, we spent our entire free time outside playing – football, basketball, riding bikes, or just running around. We probably ran three or four miles a day every day. My knees were in an almost permanent state of being skinned, with scabs growing and being torn off by my roughhousing. My mother had a bell from her family’s farm in Iowa that she used to ring us home at dinnertime – because we were always running around out of the house. I’ve been back to the street where I grew up eight times in the last few years and have yet to see a human being outside. The park where I used to play is always empty.

Keeping kids cooped up seems to be connected to the idea that we can avoid pain, avoid danger. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that in universities, students, raised indoors on screens, apparently lived in some crystalline terror of any kind of emotional anguish. A 2015 story in the Atlantic called “The Coddling of the American Mind” reported on the phenomenon of college students – kids who grew up in the era of hyper-protection from physical pain – demanding to be protected as well from painful ideas. They were demanding professors provide “trigger warnings” in advance of ideas that might provoke a strong emotional content – for example, a novel that describes racial violence. This new campus ethos, the authors wrote, “presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some [people] uncomfortable.”

Psychology Today ran a story on “Declining Student Resilience” that [sic] noticed increased neediness in college students, that students had called campus police after seeing a mouse, blaming teachers for poor grades, and “increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life.” Professors, the authors continued, “described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than reason to study more, or more effectively. Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of hand-holding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college!” All of this seems the predictable result of the idea that we should be protected from pain at all costs.

As a country, meanwhile, we acted as if consumption and the accumulation of stuff was the path to happiness. We leave family Thanksgivings to go stand in line to buy products – Xboxes, tablets, and the like – that keep us isolated and that poison our kids, and we go do it as if we have no choice in the matter. We have built isolation into our suburbs and called it prosperity. Added to that mix is the expansion of technology that connects us to the world but separates us from our next-door neighbor. We wound up dangerously separate from each other – whether in poverty or in affluence.

Kids no longer play in the street. Parks are underused. Dreamland lies buried beneath a strip mall. Why then do we wonder that heroin is everywhere? In our isolation, heroin thrives; that’s it’s natural habitat. And our very search for painlessness led us to it. Heroin is, I believe, the final expression of values we have fostered for thirty-five years. It turns every addict into narcissistic, self-absorbed, solitary hyper-consumers. A life that finds opiates turns away from family and community and devotes itself entirely to self-gratification by buying and consuming one product – the drug that makes being alone not just all right, but preferable. [Emphasis added.]

I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is community. If you want to keep kids off heroin, make sure people in your neighborhood do things together, in public, often. Form your own Dreamland and break down those barriers that keep people isolated. Don’t have play dates; just go out and play. Bring people out of their private rooms, whatever forms those rooms take. We might consider living more simply. Pursuit of stuff doesn’t equal happiness, as any heroin addict will tell you. People in some places I’ve been may emerge from this plague more compassionate, more grounded, willing to give children experience rather than things, and show them that pain is part of life and often endurable. The antidote to heroin may well be making your kids ride bikes outside, with their friends, and let them skin their knees.

Sam Quinones

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1 The richest newcomer to Forbes 2015 list of America’s Richest Families comes in at a stunning $14 billion. The Sackler family, which owns Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue Pharma, flew under the radar when Forbes launched its initial list of wealthiest families in July 2014, but this year they crack the top-20, edging out storied families like the Busches, Mellons and Rockefellers. How did the Sacklers build the 16th-largest fortune in the country? The short answer: making the most popular and controversial opioid of the 21st century – OxyContin. Purdue, 100% owned by the Sacklers, has generated estimated sales of more than $35 billion since releasing its time-released, supposedly addiction-proof version of the painkiller oxycodone back in 1995. Its annual revenues are about $3 billion, still mostly from OxyContin. The Sacklers also own separate drug companies that sell to Asia, Latin America, Canada and Europe, together generating similar total sales as Purdue’s operation in the United States.

2 OxyContin is a dying business in America. Literally. With the nation in the grip of an opiate epidemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, the U.S. medical establishment is turning away from painkillers. Top health officials are discouraging primary care doctors from prescribing them for chronic pain, saying there is no proof they work long-term and substantial evidence they put patients at risk. Prescriptions are declining amid increased scrutiny over drug addiction, down 12% since 2012 according to data from healthcare information firm IMS Health. OxyContin saw prescriptions fall 17%.

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