by Meg Wingerter
Sam Quinones speaks about his book, "Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opioid Epidemic" at the Oklahoma History Center on Tuesday. [Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman]
Oklahoma City — America's opioid epidemic was the product of 20 years of silence, and conquering it will take years of work and hosts of ideas, a reporter who traced it said.
Sam Quinones, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, published “Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic” in 2015, just as addiction was beginning to move to the center of the national conversation. He testified before Congress earlier this month. He spoke at an event hosted by the attorney general's office at the Oklahoma History Center on Tuesday night.
Quinones traced the origins of the epidemic to indiscriminate prescribing in the 1990s as doctors came to believe they were undertreating pain — an argument that had some merit. The problem began when pharmaceutical companies and some doctors underplayed the addictive potential of opioids, he said.
“We began to believe that we were entitled to a life free of pain,” he said.
Opioid pills and heroin produce similar effects, so some people who became addicted switched when prescription drugs were too expensive or not available. This happened quietly, because families were ashamed to admit what had killed their loved ones, Quinones said
“That was part of why it spread, is that people were hiding it,” he said.
Since Quinones published his book, the problem has worsened nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated nearly 67,000 people died from overdoses in the budget year that ended in June 2017. If those preliminary figures are correct, overdose deaths would be up more than 16 percent compared to the previous year. The increase was at least partly due to illicit use of fentanyl, which killed more people than heroin or prescription pills.
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The rate of increase in Oklahoma's overdose deaths tracked with the nationwide increase. Preliminary figures for Oklahoma showed deaths increasing from 727 in the year ending June 2016 to 844 in the most recent year.
Projections from the Trust for America's Health showed that overdose deaths would continue to increase in Oklahoma and nationwide, but increasing access to treatment and enacting policies to reduce the number of people addicted in the future could reduce the damage.
Despite the bleak statistics, there are signs of hope that weren't present even three years ago, Quinones said. Organizations and individuals have begun working together in ways that they didn't before, to come up with a variety of partial solutions that will work for their communities, he said.
“There is no (single) solution to this problem,” he said. “There are many solutions, and they probably vary from region to region.”