Book Review - Dreamland


The United States of America is in the midst of a widespread opiate epidemic that has devastated hundreds of small rural towns and suburbs across the country. The captivating story of exactly how this came to be is expertly told in acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones' fantastic book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, which was published in 2015.

In Dreamland, Quinones magnificently blends together two seemingly-independent narratives: the overly generous prescription of pain medications during the 1990s (including Purdue Pharma's ambitious campaign to aggressively market and sell OxyContin) and the unforeseen—and unprecedented—arrival of cheap, consistent, high quality black tar heroin from one small county in Mexico. According to Quinones, these developments joined forces in a dangerous synergy that ultimately resulted in America's modern-day opiate epidemic.

The book opens with a ridiculously thorough timeline that begins with the distillation of morphine in 1804, moves on to the invention of the hypodermic syringe in 1853 (did you know that the inventor's wife was the first to die of injected drug overdose?), glances at the release of OxyContin in 1996, and ends with the FDA's 2014 approval of Targiniq ER, which combined timed-release oxycodone with naloxone. This timeline, which provides plenty of insight into what went on in between those four events, sets the stage for the book's narrative and successfully primes the reader for the information that follows.

And the actual book doesn't disappoint, either—as the dust-jacket blurb states, it introduces "a memorable cast of characters—pharma pioneers, young Mexican entrepreneurs, narcotics investigators, survivors, and parents, and Quinones shows how these tales fit together." Sure enough, about midway through Dreamland, the reader begins to see the sophisticated web that was woven by several groups of people who were simply following the capitalist dream (operating in their own best interest in an attempt to make as much money as possible), and the once-hidden connections between the people and places involved become as clear as crystal.

When it comes down to it, Dreamland is the best book that I've read so far this year. The story is compelling and unfolds beautifully, in a masterful manner that constantly tempts the reader to read the next chapter. The level of detail that is crammed into each page is truly impressive, but never overwhelming. Simply put—I enjoyed every single word. The topic isn't necessarily the most popular (for the average reader), so I'm not sure that I would recommend this book to someone unless they're already interested in America's opiate epidemic. However, if you are at all intrigued by the topic, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. It will likely take a while to read, because it is packed so densely, but it will be worth your investment of money, time, and energy. And I will keep an eye out for any future books and articles by Quinones, as his writing is an absolute joy to read.

5/5 stars. 385 pages.

Banner image by jplenio, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.