The drug crisis that has gripped the US for years has reached a milestone during the pandemic. More than 100,000 Americans died from overdoses in the one-year period ended April, up nearly 30% from the previous year, according to data released this week by the National Center for Health Statistics. This staggering number exceeds the number of road deaths and fatalities combined.
How did this happen? The Times spoke to Sam Quinones, who recorded drug trafficking in the 2015 book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic and most recently examined the evolution of the epidemic in his new book The Least of Us: True Tales of America and America Hope in the time of fentanyl and meth. ”
Quinones is a former Times reporter. This interview was edited for the sake of clarity.
Sam, this is the first time overdose deaths have topped 100,000 in one year. It’s easy to imagine how the pandemic played a role in this surge – exacerbating anxiety and depression, and cutting off access to treatment. But there seems to be a bit of a paradox here: a crisis exacerbated by COVID-19, but also obscured by it.
Yes, and completely drained of it, too. By February 2020, awareness of the crisis really grew, and then all of the focus shifted – I’m not saying it wrongly – to the pandemic. The problem was that at that moment the Mexican human trafficking world had achieved something no other human trafficker in our country’s history had achieved: covering the country with the deadliest and most mind-numbing drugs we have ever seen. It has been built on for years. It just so happened that we got isolated the moment these drugs peaked.
They talk about synthetic drugs and especially meth and fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times as potent as morphine. How does the potency of these drugs play in the developing drug crisis?
These overdose numbers are unprecedented because the street situation is too. Never in the modern history of drug use – say, during World War II – have you seen the need for the drug trafficking world to mix drugs for profit. Not with crack, PCP, cocaine – they’re all ready for sale, right? In order for the human trafficking world to get the lottery winnings it is waiting for, it needs to mix these things up.
They mix with meth, mix with cocaine, and now we are seeing reports of mixing with marijuana. Anyone who sells knows that you just add fentanyl to your mix – whether you sell cocaine or meth, it doesn’t matter – and soon enough you will have a fentanyl addict buying from you every day.
We live in a very, very different world. There used to be shifts over decades: The 70s were depressed; the 80s were crack, stimulants; the 90s, well, you didn’t really know. And so now everything is together and everything at the same time – in catastrophic amounts.
Timothy J. Shea announces a record DEA seizure of 2,224 pounds of methamphetamine, 893 pounds of cocaine and 13 pounds of heroin related to the Sinaloa drug cartel during searches of Moreno Valley and Perris in October 2020.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Let me ask that because when it comes to something so addicting I often wonder about the cyclical relationship between supply and demand. When people get addicted, it seems like the synthetic nature of these products is lowering the barriers to mass production.
To the right. You can make these year-round provided you have access to the chemicals. These synthetic drugs don’t need seasons: you don’t need four months to make 50 pounds of methamphetamine, you need about a week. And when you have the chemicals, you can make those 50 pounds over and over again.
With methamphetamine, it is no longer limited to a precursor that is difficult to replicate. You can make ghastly quantities using a lot of different chemical processes or hacks, right? You can do it this way, you can do it this way The chemicals are different, but they are all readily available, they are all industrial, they are legal. Of course, most of them are very toxic – but there is alkali, cyanide, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid. There are many ways to make this stuff.
As a result, methamphetamine prices have fallen by 80% or more in many regions. For example, in the Nashville area, methamphetamine was $ 12.50 an ounce. Now it’s $ 2.25.
What about fentanyl?
First off, the amount it takes to make a huge, huge profit is actually relatively small. And it’s pretty easy to do. But there is another problem with fentanyl. First, Chinese companies sent fentanyl directly in the mail – you buy it on the darknet and they send you a kilo. But it is very unlikely that we will ever be able to meet the supply of fentanyl that we are now seeing in postal parcels from China.
That amount is due to the fact that it is now the Mexican trading world that is making it with these unlimited chemicals from ports on Mexico’s Pacific coast and passing them through the border crossings between the millions of cars and trucks that go back and forth to the US each year . The move was away from China to Mexico, where the chemicals arrive in large quantities.
A loot of 5,525 pounds of methamphetamine, touted as the largest bust of the drug in US history, and 127 pounds of fentanyl in a truck at the Otay Mesa border crossing on August 6.
(U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California)
Geographically, if the products come from there, where do they go? If we look at last year’s overdose data, it seems to touch almost every corner of the US
Think about it: as you travel coast to coast on the freeways, you will find that Corporate America has almost identical deals across the country. It doesn’t matter where you are – you’ll find the Applebees, Cracker Barrel, the same Hampton Inns and Motel 6s, and Shell gas stations.
This is what the Mexican trading world has achieved with these two drugs in particular – fentanyl and methamphetamine. You can get them in Kentucky, you can get them in Los Angeles, you can get them in Oregon. They have built huge distribution networks across the country. That too is unprecedented.
So this is not the corner shop or even the in-n-out. It’s McDonald’s, right?
The McDonald’s or the Walmart, yes.
Can you talk a little about the demographics we are seeing in overdose deaths? For many of us, the crisis is still primarily a rural, white issue. But these numbers reflect the shift towards more diverse victims.
When I wrote Dreamland, there were no non-whites involved. For that reason it was remarkable – as far as I know, we had never seen a racist drug scourge in our country, let alone anything on this scale. And it’s still largely white. that seems very clear to me.
But “The Least of Us” certainly brought African Americans into the mix for the first time in my reporting. African Americans die of opioid overdoses because African American dealers find out the same thing as any other dealer: I can put fentanyl in my cocaine. And if I do, I’ll have a fentanyl user pretty soon. I talk about this at length in my book. The chapter I’m writing about it focuses on the first African American to die in the city of Akron, one of the first cities where fentanyl arrived. Mikey Tanner lived 10 years battling cocaine addiction but lived no more than a month or two after fentanyl hit the drug supply.
It was years ago – in the early days of fentanyl – but it hinted at something bigger, namely that drug dealers in the African American community, like every other drug dealer across America, were starting to find out that when you added fentanyl to anything you were selling , you get a far more loyal customer. The negative, of course, is that you get a corpse on occasion.
This is what happened to the comic strip in Venice Beach in early September, and most likely also to Michael K. Williams, the great actor from “The Wire”. People first think they are using cocaine and they die from this stuff.
I am curious to see how, in your opinion, the reactions of the federal or state governments should change in view of these new data. There has long been a lot of hype about improving access to naloxone and promoting its use. But what do you think of the best way to go about it – take it hard or loosen it up?
I’m afraid to answer this question because I would have to go on for a while. And not because I have all the answers. But the idea of decriminalizing drugs – if those drugs are fentanyl and meth – seems to me to be the culmination of misguided compassion. It’s not kind and compassionate, it’s a death sentence, and it’s really devastating.
Drugs have changed, but our thinking has not. Philosophies stemming from another drug era need to be reevaluated; The idea that law enforcement agencies don’t play a role in any of this is foolish.
It is time to understand: if you become addicted to fentanyl and synthetic meth in the street, you will not be attainable for treatment. You will never be ready for treatment until these drugs kill you. After all, fentanyl will kill anyone who uses it.