by Hugh Gilmore
Anytime you want, you can go up to New York’s Metropolitan Museum and see the Temple of Dendur display and be inspired by the power of ancient Rome and Egypt. Before The Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser could drown it back in 1963, it was given as a gift to the American people. Transported brick-by-brick, it wound up in the Met in a special section dedicated to the Mighty of the Ancients. That section is known as the Sackler Wing.
After lunch, still hungry for awe, you could Uber past the Guggenheim and tip your hat to the Sackler Center for Arts Education on your way to Penn Station southbound. After gliding down to Washington you could walk slack-jawed through the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of ancient Asian art.
(Not to be confused with Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, a collection strong in Chinese jades, bronzes, ceremonial art and valuable tidbits from ancient Japan, Korea, Greece, Rome, India and various Muslim lands.)
The next day, you could wing on over to the Sackler Wing at the Louvre, and then fly back to tour dozens of Sackler Institutes and facilities at universities throughout this great land of ours. That’ll take a while.
But when you’re done, you might want to stand outside any of America’s many needle parks and watch, as Yeats said, “The young in one another’s arms … dying,” and scratch your head. You’re going to have to walk around that lumpy ball of wax more than a few times if you ever hope to understand how our country got to be “The land of the free and the home of … ” – the opiate addict.
But we can say this: Most people who have looked into the problem say it starts with the arts and culture-loving Sackler Family, their Purdue Pharma Company and their 1985 invention: OxyContin.
Your best guide for this tour, I would wager, is a book called “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” Written by Sam Quinones, a veteran journalist from Los Angeles, “Dreamland” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction. Though it was written in 2015, I did not read it until January last year because, as is so often the case, I thought I knew it all on that subject and I thought the subject had nothing to do with me. I was wrong on both counts. Nearly every person is America is going to be affected by a ripple from this splash.
I’ve tried to write about this book to recommend it several times since I read it last year, but couldn’t. The author’s findings and his skill at weaving individual human stories into bigger national trends are so impressive and so comprehensive, I could not get a grip on the story. I’ve felt the same frustration when trying to recommend it in conversation. It’s a very big story with many vectors other than the Sacklers.
But let’s start with them. Generally, it is agreed that OxyContin – derived from oxycodone and a close relative to heroin – is a pain reliever. It is also highly addictive. The Sacklers marketed it as not likely to addict. They fudged their statistics (e.g., their 12-hour pill turned out to be an 8-hour pill for many people, meaning they’d need higher dosages.) Millions of opiate addicts began as patients seeking pain relief.
The rise of OxyContin coincided with a time when an anti-pain movement was sweeping through American medicine. Where extended prescription renewals were limited, the drug became a black market item for underground resale. Pill prices rose fast, as did addiction.
Perhaps coincidentally, “black tar” heroin of great potency and cheap price began migrating out of a small county, Xalisco, Nayarit, on Mexico’s west coast. Not linked to any known drug cartel, it developed an ingenious and highly practical distribution system.
Some of its principles: Avoid big cities because of competition from drug lords. Seek smaller cities like Scranton, Allentown or Portsmouth, Ohio. Never send a boss. Send a young, poor man. Never carry more than a few balloons of heroin. Never carry weapons – they lead to police heat if anyone is shot. Use cell phones with codes. Deliver to the buyer’s house or apartment, like a pizza delivery chain. It’s not at all like the movie version of drug dealing. And thus, in many cities the transfer from pricey oxycodone to cheap, potent heroin was effected very rapidly.
Quinones’ book’s title refers to an actual community swimming pool and recreational center for the blue-collar, tight-knit town of Portsmouth, Ohio. It represents a symbol of small-town American, cozy, happy times. The population peaked at about 42,000 people in 1930. By the 1980s, it was half of that as the steel mill and other industries folded up in the face of foreign price competition. By the 1990s the town was plagued by unemployment, prescription-drug addiction, higher death rates, robberies and murders. Young children were being born addicted. Dreamland had become a faded dream. The major drug of choice: OxyContin.
Perhaps when the idea of Dreamland acquires sufficient patina, and notoriety acquires dignity through aging, the town and pool will be reconstructed. Then it can be moved to a major museum somewhere. One that has the Sackler name on the wing. People can sip wine and eat cheese and crackers as they gaze at the wonder of it all.
Hugh Gilmore lives and writes in Chestnut Hill. He is the author of “Malcolm’s Wine” a noirish crime novel set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, among the world of rare books.