Award Winner Alerted Country to Opiate Abuse

Sam Quinones
Photo by Henk Friezer

Journalist Sam Quinones studied drug trafficking as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times 10 years ago. When he investigated further, he made some startling discoveries.

He found that heroin addiction and fatal overdoses had risen dramatically in the U.S. In addition, the new addicts were switching to the drug from legally prescribed pain medications.

“You could not talk about pills without talking about heroin or talk about heroin without talking about pills,” Quinones said in an interview. 

Heroin was cheaper than pain pills, and it was supplied by vast corporate-like criminal networks. Surprisingly, in the communities he studied, the supply originated from one small Mexican village. Adding to this were societal changes that made people highly vulnerable to addiction.

This phenomenon is depicted in the new film “Ben is Back.” In it, Julia Roberts portrays a mother, and Lucas Hedges’ character is her young drug-addicted son.

Quinones alerted the country to this development in his book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” (Bloomsbury Press) in 2015. In it, he reported on such cities affected by it as Portsmouth, Ohio and Portland, Oregon. “Dreamland” has received dozens of awards. The book and his efforts since its publication have broadened society’s understanding of the issue.

For his contribution, city Mayor Marina Khubesrian named Quinones, a 12-year South Pasadena resident, as a recipient of an Image Award. The honor is given annually to individuals or organizations that have enhanced the image of South Pasadena beyond its borders.

She announced this Dec. 29 at the War Memorial Building. It took place during the annual Crunch Time fundraiser for the South Pasadena float entry in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.

“Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic”

“‘Dreamland’ has had a profound effect on the way the country and government understood the opiate epidemic,” Mayor Khubesrian said in an email prior to the event.

“He [Quinones] speaks all over the country and stresses that a community like ours is so important to a healthy population,” said Khubesrian, who is a physician.

Before his book, Quinones said, the growing drug crisis was a secret. “Everyone wanted to hide it,” he said, referring to fatal overdoses.

“People said their loved one died of a heart attack or in a car accident.” They were ashamed and thought they were the only ones impacted, he said.

“The book helped give people permission,” Quinones said. “They lost their fear and shame and stepped out of the shadows.”

“All of a sudden, people began inviting me to speak,” he said. “It was once a week, then three times a week and then five to six times a week.”

Next, state legislators and state cabinet officials, health department chiefs and other political leaders contacted him.

Now, three years later, he continues to speak. He estimates he has made 200 presentations since the book’s publication. He talks to professionals and to residents of towns decimated by addiction. He encourages the public to take steps to reduce social isolation and rebuild communities.

In January 2018, he testified on the opiate crisis for two hours before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in Washington, D.C.

Senators from both parties were in total agreement on the issue, he said.

Much has happened since his book was released. “Congress has approved more money for treatment and research,” he said. “Hopefully, that will continue.”

In addition, states have changed laws, he said. For example, he said, Narcan, an overdose antidote, is more available. More states have implemented drug-tracking systems.

According to Quinones, many in the medical profession have re-examined their belief that pain was being severely undertreated and that the risk of addiction was low. They acknowledge the role of pharmaceutical companies in promoting controlled-substance overprescribing.

The changes that have taken place, however, are not apparent unless you go to the affected communities, he said.

“County after county, people are coming together, forming alliances and task forces.” He said the only way to attack this is at the local level.

Quinones has been a journalist for 31 years. He spent 10 years as a freelance writer in Mexico, according to his website at There, he wrote two non-fiction books containing stories of migration and modern Mexico. He worked at the Los Angeles Times from 2004 to 2014 covering immigration, drug trafficking, neighborhood stories and gangs.

Quinones is working on a new book focusing on abuse of the drug fentanyl and how communities can combat the drug crisis.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there are more distribution networks now and more drug-seeking customers.”