Health

It was the mid-2000s when journalist and author Sam Quinones returned to the U.S. from Mexico, and took a job at the L.A. Times. 

Through his reporting, he noticed a big surge in heroin use. Backtracking how it started, he learned it had evolved from the prescription opioid-fueled scourge that had taken hold while he was down south. 

His 2015 book, “Dreamland,” followed that path – and the destruction it’s caused families and communities. His most recent work, “The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth,” digs into where the addiction crisis has headed – cheap synthetic and powerful drugs which have flooded the U.S. 

Quinones was the speaker last week at Drug Facts Week in Southern Indiana – several days of events hosted by Clark County CARES, a grassroots community group started in 2015 as opioids started to take hold in the area. 

But like much of the U.S., Clark County has seen the shift away from heroin to methamphetamine and the super-strong opioid fentanyl. Last year, the county recorded the highest number of overdose deaths since 2016, and most involved both drugs. 

“Fentanyl of course is the deadliest drug we’ve ever seen, and there are analogues too that are even deadlier than fentanyl itself,” Quinones said, adding that methamphetamine is dangerous for a much different reason. 

In his reporting across the U.S., including Southern Indiana, he found that the meth coming into communities now from Mexico is causing rapid onset of serious mental illness, including hallucinations, paranoia and delusions, and quickly taking hold of those who use it. 

“Very quickly people cannot hold their lives together; they become impossible to live with,” Quinones said. “Very quickly they become homeless, screaming at demons, staying up all night, wandering around the house with a knife, that kind of thing. 

“And these are people that did not frequently behave that way before this drug came around.”

A big part of the switch is that traffickers can now make the drugs in a lab, without relying on plants or farmers, and sell a lot of it cheaply, he said. 

In talking with people in Clark County, Quinones has heard stories similar to ones across the U.S. from doctors, law enforcement, social workers and people who work with those experiencing homelessness. 

“Clark County is right in the middle of the country and right in the middle of the issue,” he said. 

But as told in his book, there are many stories of redemption and hope. There’s not one answer to solving the current situation, but a “mosaic of answers,” and people working together, he said. 

“It involves the communities redesigning certain things so it makes addiction recovery easier, not a series of obstacles that you have to clear, each one more difficult than the last,” said Quinones. “And…there’s a very strong component of accountability on the part of addicts. Once the community steps up. They need to step up, too. 

“Community is our best defense. We evolved to have that impulse in our brains to stay with other people because that’s how we survived.”

Aprile Rickert is WFPL's health reporter.