As part of their Leading Voices in Public Health series, the East Tennessee State University’s Public Health department featured journalist and author, Sam Quinones, to speak about his most recent book, “The Least of Us: America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth,” published in 2021, a never intended upon follow-up to his 2015 multi-award winning book, “Dreamland: The True Tales of America’s Opioid Epidemic”.
Quinones first got into writing when in 1987, he got a job as a crime reporter for the Stockton Record, in Stockton California. “The key thing there was that I wrote four, five stories a day, for like four years,” he stated in an interview at the event.
There, he covered everything from gangs and drugs to murder, getting first-hand perspective of that lifestyle and the effects it has on people. The experience would end up reaffirming to Quinones that journalism and reporting was what he wanted to do. “I was already heading into journalism, I liked it, but when I really learned how to really write well and had very good editors, at this very tough job, you know, after four years of that, you’re going to get better. After that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
After leaving Stockton and spending a short time working for the Tacoma-News Tribune, Quinones left Seattle to move to Mexico. While there, he not only studied Spanish and learned of Mexican immigration firsthand, but also worked for a short time as a reporter for Mexico Insight, before moving on quickly after it shut down to be a freelance writer and traveler all over the country of Mexico for nearly the next decade. In those years, he spent time with an extremely varied assortment of people, from governors to street gangs and more, again gaining a great variety of knowledge and experience.
While in Mexico, Quinones also wrote his first two non-fiction books of real-life stories he encountered during his time there. “True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx”, which came out in 2015, was his first book, followed by “Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration,” later that same year.
In 2015, Quinones published his most well-known book, “Dreamland: The True Tales of America’s Opioid Epidemic”, which details the rise of OxyContin, a prescription drug being pushed by Big Pharma, and how it compares to the rise in black tar heroin coming from the west coast of Mexico. While originally thinking “Dreamland” would be the end of this story, saying in a 2021 interview with the Los Angeles Book Review (LARB), “I thought the story was over. Who moves on from heroin?,” Quinones quickly realized the story had just begun.
“In ‘Dreamland’, I began to understand that my feeling was that the community aspect of this story was essential,” he stated. Although these deadly synthetic drugs put a hold on their users, one that which physically changes the pathways in their brain, a situation which Quinones paralleled to a brainwashing, statistically making recovery more difficult, along with almost seventy-thousand opioid overdose deaths in 2020 alone, a number that has been increasing steadily since the 90’s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recovery is not impossible for anybody, and as communities we need to extend our hands to these people rather than treat them as less than if we ever want to solve any of these problems. We, as communities, are the strongest defense we have.
“It’s [The Least of Us] my attempt to talk about the situation in America today, which is flooded with synthetic drugs, drugs that don’t need a plant…very dangerous and cheaper and more pervasive than ever,” Quinones stated. “At the same time though, I wanted to talk about what I was seeing, which was across the country, people kind of coming together, working to improve their communities…so those are the twin parts to this book.”
In this book, Quinones not only dives into the neuroscience behind addiction, but also true stories of people around the county making a difference in their communities, bringing them together and showing support for all those in need. “In a time when drug traffickers act like corporations and corporations like traffickers,” he writes, “our best defense, perhaps our only defense, lies in bolstering community.”
Quinones goes on to say that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, the concept of “the least of us” is in all of us, because although we live in a society where those who do drugs are looked down on, in the end, we are human and are set apart because of our ability to care about, empathize with, and help each other.
“It could be a strong neighborhood or a strong half-block, could be a strong church…there’s lots of versions of this, but the idea is we need to recognize that this has what has kept us alive as a species; it is the most powerful force…far more powerful than dope,” he states. “It’s more of an attitudinal idea. It’s the jobs of those who live there to figure it out. Look out for people, find ways to help the people who need it, find ways of meeting people you probably aren’t going to agree with politically, or at all.”
“The Least of Us: America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth” and all of Sam Quinones books are available anywhere books are sold