The American Heroin Epidemic, Volume II: Race and the Criminal Justice System

Sam Quinones’s Dreamland was published by Bloomsbury in 2015. It provides a complete history of the opiate epidemic and examines the roles of the medical industry, Big Pharma, drug traffickers, law enforcement, drug users, their families, and the government. Last month, Bloomsbury gave me permission to reprint a chapter from his book on the History of Heroin. A central theme of Dreamland is the collapse of American towns and the sense of community. Mr. Quinones was born in Claremont, CA and earned his BA in economics and American history from Berkeley. He wrote for the LA Times from 2004 to 2014. Dreamland is his third book. I interviewed him over the phone on December 14, 2015.

This is the second of eight articles from that interview. In the first article, we discussed the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the current American opiate epidemic. In volume two, we talked about race and how drug policies in the 1980’s with crack are very different than the 21st century policies surrounding opiates.


Frank Greenagel: Heroin has plagued minority communities for years and neither the media nor the government said or did much about it. It kind of reminds me of Richard Pryor, who had a stand up bit in the early ’80s where he talked about how white people would drive around black neighborhoods and say, “Look at those people. I can’t believe that.” Then they’d go home and find their 15-year-old son using cocaine and saying, “Oh my God, it’s an epidemic!” I found the same thing with prescription pain killers. They introduced a wave of suburban whites to opiates and they began to die in droves. Now, the media and the government in this century have really started to address it. When you combine this with the fact that blacks and Hispanics have higher rates of drug arrests and lower rates of treatment, some would argue that our drug policies are still, today in 2015, intensely racist. Any comment on that?

Sam Quinones: Let me put it this way. Heroin is no longer a problem in the black or Latino community. It has not been a problem in those communities for many years, so if we’re just talking about heroin, part of your analysis isn’t quite right there. However, what is correct is that conservatives, middle of the road even, maybe even some Democrats, in many parts of the country did enact very stringent drug laws back when the majority of the people who were involved either as users as dealers in those drugs, primarily cocaine and crack, were African American. I’m talking about of course the Reagan years and after that. I have found it interesting, let’s put it that way, to see people at meetings and speeches I’ve given and public events that I’ve been at or sometimes when I’m speaking stand up and say, “My son is addicted and the only thing he has available to him is the street or incarceration, jail or prison.” My response to that is that is exactly the approach that we have decided to take as a country dating back to the mid-1980s. Nowhere in those years did you find a huge amount of support for treatment, though a lot of folks were addicted to crack cocaine. They were perceived to be not worth our treating, apparently. We now have an entire population of the country that has come to realize that the policies which either they, or their parents, or their representatives for many years supported are actually now having an enormous negative effect on their own families because their families really don’t have ability to put their addicted loved ones into treatment of any kind. Now, there are a couple other caveats, though, and this is how this is a little different. This is not easy. This is not easy, so I hesitate agree entirely with that analysis. Whenever I think I have an easy answer when it comes to this problem, I know I’m wrong.

There’s another few things that influenced what was going back in the late ’80s and early ’90s dealing with crack cocaine. Crack cocaine caused probably the biggest eruption of public violence since probably Chicago during the 1920s during prohibition, or Miami in the early ’80s when the Colombians came through. I was a crime reporter during the crack years in a town that was mightily effected by that in Stockton, California. I can tell you it was … It went through neighborhoods like a hurricane and those were not white neighborhoods. They were black neighborhoods who were mightily effected by this. Kids getting killed; gangs forming that had never formed before; drive-by shootings; bullets whizzing through apartments killing kids, paralyzing kids. Those laws were largely in response to the massive destruction caused by public violence related to the crack trade that was taking place in primarily black but also Latino neighborhoods, certainly in the town that I was in. It was there where you had long rows of dealers out on the street selling very blatantly. Every house that was rented, if it remained vacant for two weeks, it was overtaken by crackheads. There were a lot of reasons why draconian laws were put in place and one of them was that the crack years created public violence that was extraordinarily horrifying. Those crime rates have dropped significantly. I live in Los Angeles. We have the lowest crime rate since the 1960s, since Leave It To Beaver was on the TV. That motivation of “we need to put people in prison because our crime rate’s out of control” is no longer there. This epidemic has been characterized for the first time since I can remember a complete lack of public violence, very very little. You don’t find drive-by shootings. You don’t find carjackings. You don’t find any of that. It’s all very quiet. People are mortified, they don’t talk about it, there’s no public violence to outrage the public, to motivate public officials, any of that. There’s quite a bit of a difference here.

I remember because I was a crime reporter during those years. It was a scary damn thing to go into a crack neighborhood. You never knew what was going to happen. Every kid had a gun, they were all selling dime bags of crack. It was out of control and that was a black neighborhood. The black residents of South Stockton were some of the most conservative, as I remember, when it came to issues regarding incarceration because they had to live with it. They had to live with it every day and it was their kids who were getting chewed up by that crap. The laws that were passed back then I think missed the boat significantly, completely, when it came to treatment, but it’s also true that these were laws that were in large part, I believe in areas where I was, brought on by demands from the black community to get tough on the issues related to crack and crack-related violence and gang violence.

I can imagine that if there were a lot of public violence associated with this epidemic that you would not be seeing the move to change the laws the way we’ve seen. That said, it’s also very, very true, as you say, that there is a movement among suburban and rural whites, often in very conservative areas, to find new approaches, non-incarceration approaches to people who are addicted. That is because, as you correctly say, all their kids and their neighbors and their people they know from church, etc, etc, quarterbacks from their high school are the ones getting addicted now. They see it. It touches them. No longer is it somebody in some black neighborhood in the middle of the city that’s getting effected. It’s the pastor’s kid. It’s the insurance salesman’s kid, the doctor’s kid, the farmer’s kid. That has ignited a real strong interest in what is available for those folks. Again, as I say, so I often hear people say the only thing that’s available for my son is incarceration or the streets and that’s because that’s the system we have created over the last 30 years. Now people are saying we need more.