DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones is the story of how heroin addiction spread through rural and suburban white America.
Dreamland was the name of a popular swimming pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, a small city on the Ohio river that once was the center of the U.S. shoe manufacturing industry.
The pool closed as the shoe industry declined, but Portsmouth gave birth to a new industry—the mass prescription of legal but addictive pain medications such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals’ OxyContin.
Regular practitioners were misled into thinking that OxyContin, a biochemical twin of heroin, and related were harmless, but industry really took off with the spread of “pill mills”—medical practices that were limited to the prescription of pills for alleged pain/
The business of addictive prescription drugs is one part of the story Quinones told. The other more startling part is how poor people in the small Mexican town of Xalisco (population about 20,000) created a nationwide distribution franchise system which spread their locally-cooked black tar heroin across the United States.
The Xalisco Boys, as police came to call them, did not carry weapons, did not use drugs themselves, and never sold to black people (whom they thought were violent). They emphasized product quality, good customer service and competitive prices, with discounts for new customers.
They created an equivalent to a pizza delivery franchise, in which customers could call a certain number and have heroin delivered to a certain spot. The drivers were inconspicuous, kept out of trouble and drove nondescript vehicles.
They put heroin in balloons, which they kept in their mouths. When police stopped them, they swallowed the balloons, which they were later able to recover, with the heroin intact.
As they moved out from their original base in the San Fernando Valley, they avoided areas where violent drug gangs operated. Instead they moved into areas where prescription painkillers such as OxyContin were heavily sold, and offered their product as a cheaper and easier-to-obtain substitute.
The Mexican drug cartels and urban criminal gangs are responsible for much of the heroin sold in the United States, Quinones wrote. They control the heroin trade in Chicago, Atlanta, northern California and many other urban centers, he said; very little heroin comes from Asia any more. The Xalisco Boys took heroin where the established traffickers never thought to go.