A tale of pain, addiction and change

Forum plumbs the history of America’s opioid crisis


America’s current problem with opioid drugs and addiction had many causes, according to author Sam Quinones, but really one solution.

“The antidote is not naloxone, it’s community,” Quinones said Dec. 4 at a Westminster Criminal Justice forum sponsored by the Adams County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The council is an advisory group to police agencies in Adams County that addresses criminal justice isssues.

“We believed in easy answers to complex problems,” he said. “We felt we were owed a pain-free life, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. Parents became averse to allowing their children to experiencing any pain at all. The impact has been that community has disappeared from our parks and natural places for meeting.”

More than 50 members of the community and dedicated justice personnel listened to Quinones, award-winning author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” tell the story of how the opioid crisis has come to be in America.

Quinones has been a journalist for 30 years, working as a freelance writer in Mexico for ten years. Since 2004, he’s worked for the Los Angeles Times covering immigration, drug trafficking, gangs and neighborhood stories.

It’s an important tale to tell, Quinones said.

“Addictions begin with prescription drugs, such as Oxycontin, which becomes addictive over time,” Quinones said. “Originally, no one seemed to want to talk about it. It was like the AIDS epidemic, where folks would say, `They died of cancer’ instead of sharing the truth of the matter.”

Quinones was the opening speaker at the forum, which was organized to help the community discuss the opioid problem, learn about it’s history and talk about potential solutions.

Quinones said the Los Angeles Times originally hired him to cover the drug industry on a national level because he could connect with traffickers. He said he was drawn to Huntington, West Virginia which was reporting a growing problem with black tar heroin. According to reports, the criminal activity was completely non-violent.

“There were no guns. Guys would drive up to the local burger joint and before you know it an international drug deal would go down,” Quinones stated.

Criminals began expanding their network and the industry continued to evolve.

“The larger story is that the majority of heroin came from overseas, expensive and weak. In the 1980s, all that changed,” Quinones said. “The Columbian cartels ruled, but then the Mexicans introduced product that came over cheaper and more potent.”

No one paid any attention as that industry grew because law enforcement and media attention was on methampthetamine, he said.

Prescription growth

Meanwhile, a parallel development was occurring with prescription meds. As new pain treatments emerged in the 1990s, doctors promoted their use and downplayed the risk of addiction, Quinones said.

Patients, too, began demanding the drugs — threatening negative feedback or lawsuits if they don’t didn’t get their way. Some began turning to the ample and cheap illegal heroin if prescriptions were not filled, he said.

That, in turn, has helped create the current epidemic.

“Heroin turns everyone into self-gratification and pain-avoidance preferable people,” Quinones said. “Isolation has become heroin’s result.”

Community key

The by-products of that epidemic are isolation and a lack of emotional well-being. That’s why community is so important, Quinones said.

Adams County Sheriff Michael Mcintosh agreed.

“A lot of the responsibility seems to come to the justice, but really it is a community issue,” McIntosh stated.

Adam’s County has been focused on linking individuals in the community to services they need, he said. Based on the six pillars of success — prevention, treatment, recovery, overdose reversal, law enforcement, and criminal justice reform — the ultimate goal is to stabilize the issue before it comes to the justice system.

In a panel discussion, representatives of the Tri-County Health, Community Reach Center, Thornton Police Department, and the 17th Judicial District, shared their perspectives on how they are addressing the opioid epidemic in Adam’s County.

“It’s passion and commitment of community members here that make it possible to figure out how to assess the health and wellness of our communities,” Thornton Police Chief Randy Nelson, a 42-year veteran of the force, said.

Audience questions ranged from asking how to get better awareness and access to resources to a debate on whether judges should get in between the client and the doctor.

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