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'We are completely vulnerable': Q&A with Sam Quinones shines light on rise in counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl, methamphetamine

Sam Quinones Zoom2 - FOR WEB.jpg
Zoom Screenshot
Sam Quinones speaks to Peorians via Zoom on Nov. 15 during a Q&A sponsored by local public libraries.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on America, another major health crisis is ravaging communities.

From March 2020 to March 2021, the United States saw 96,779 drug overdose deaths – a 30% increase over the previous year's 74,679 deaths – according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2019, the CDC reported that 72.9% of opiate-related drug overdoses involved synthetic opioids.

These statistics don’t surprise freelance journalist and New York Times bestselling author Sam Quinones.

Best known for his 2015 novel “Dreamland,” Quinones has spent decades studying the Mexican drug trade and drug addiction in America.

In his latest book, “The Least of Us: True Tales of American and Hope in The Time of Fentanyl and Meth,” Quinones delves into drug traffickers’ transition away from plant-based drugs such as marijuana and cocaine to lab-made fentanyl and methamphetamine … and how these drugs are the backbone of the exploding counterfeit pill market.

“The Least of Us” also shines a light on the small yet profound ways in which neighbors across America continue to help each other tackle the opioid epidemic and drug addiction.

Quinones' book 'The Least of Us' sheds light on the dangers of fentanyl and meth

On Monday the Peoria Public Library hosted a virtual Q&A event with Quinones.

Ahead of the event, WCBU’s Hannah Alani interviewed Quinones about his research, and how communities like Peoria are grappling with the skyrocketing rise in counterfeit pills coming from Mexico.

The following is a transcript of an interview that partially aired during All Things Peoria on Tuesday, Nov. 16. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Sam Quinones: The counterfeit pill phenomenon dates to about 2017. 10,000, 15,000, 30,000 pills at a time. And these were records, because they'd never seen this kind of thing before. Within a few years, by 2020, you were talking about millions. And then recently, of course, the DEA put out an alert in September saying, ‘We've, we've seized, already in 2021, 9.5 million of these pills.'

...Earlier this month in Mexico, the army down there, seized 118 kilos of fentanyl, pure fentanyl. From a house. It was a middle-class house in the city of Culiacán … the capital of Sinaloa. And they estimated that this lab, that was in this house, was producing 70 kilos a month, every month. And that's essentially 70 million pills a month, of the kind that you're seeing in Peoria. And really, we're seeing across the country, not just in Illinois, of course.

Fentanyl is one reason why the U.S. drug addiction crisis is roaring back

… This makes total sense from a trafficking point of view. You don't need land, you don't need sunlight, irrigate, farming, you don't need any of that stuff. You just need the chemicals. And you need a laboratory, which of course, are out of the view of helicopters and so on. What becomes important is not land anymore. It's shipping ports … Because it's through those ports, you can get access to the world's chemical markets. You can get chemicals from China, from India, many other countries as well … And they have access to two very important shipping ports on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, not far from the drug regions.

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JOLT Foundation / Facebook
A blue pill labeled M30 was sold as a counterfeit Oxydodone pill in Peoria. The pill tested positive for fentanyl, a highly potent lab-made synthetic opiate, according to a JOLT Foundation post on Facebook.

…And so what has been able to happen over the last eight to 10 years, but certainly over the last five without a doubt, is that they have had access to almost unlimited supplies of chemicals. And those chemicals, they are now using to produce the staggering quantities of drugs that we're seeing on our streets. A marijuana crop takes four months. A methamphetamine cook takes about a week.

…And if you think of if you think of this lab, it's a major lab, but it's certainly not the only one. And it's also what it means is, early on in fentanyl’s life in the United States, it was really produced in China, and the Mexicans bought it and then exported it to the United States. But now the Mexicans have learned how to make fentanyl themselves. They buy the ingredients on the world markets, a lot of it from China, but I suspect they could buy many other places. And so now they know how to make it. And now they have only in the last few years transformed that into counterfeit pills.

The DEA Is Warning Of A Rise In Overdose Deaths From Fake Drugs Laced With Fentanyl

…The supply is so vast, that it hits Peoria, but also LA and Vermont, and all the places in between.

…They have really been able to replicate what corporate America has done all across the country, which is pretty much homogenize the offerings. The same Target stores, the same Applebee's restaurants, the same Chili's, the same Cracker Barrels, all across the country. They have done that with drugs.

Hannah Alani: With the plant-based farmed drugs, you needed the big farm lands. But now you’re saying a middle-class family in Sinaloa can turn their home into a lab. How has this changed the drug cartel system?

Sam Quinones: Really now I think being a drug cartel leader amounts to you having lots of access to the chemicals coming into the ports. Of course the more people who want to make drugs, the better for you. You can sell more chemicals. And that’s really what’s going on. You’re seeing a massive explosion, I would say, of producers.

Hannah Alani: Why should people care about this? Why should people who aren’t addicts, who don't know someone who's looking for Percocet, and accidentally ODs on fentanyl … Why should the community at large care that this is happening?

Sam Quinones: These drugs are remarkable in their effect on the brain. No other substances that we have found so far have had this kind of effect. If you think about our brain, it evolved over millions of years to reward things that kept us alive, like eating. Having sex. Being, I would say, in community [with each other.] Our brains also have these systems that immediately alert us to imminent danger. Flee, leave, run, whatever. And that kept us alive. The remarkable thing about these drugs is that they mute all of that. You're no longer, particularly on opioids, you no longer want to have sex. You no longer really care about whether you eat. You don't care about being with other people. In fact, you turn your back on the people who love you most. … We all can be that addict eating from the trash. And I think the pandemic and the epidemic are showing us that we're only as strong as those folks. Until we, we reach out, until we do what we can to make sure those folks have a way out of it. … And that involves a lot of different components of community.

Overdose Deaths Surged In Pandemic, As More Drugs Were Laced With Fentanyl

Hannah Alani: How should local police departments be responding to this insane rise in synthetic drugs?

Sam Quinones: Social media is where you can get a lot of your clues and your tips, and understanding what's going on. … The new street corner has become Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, gaming platforms. … Dealers that might ordinarily sell out of their houses are now selling anonymously, with very colorful menus of pills, on Snapchat, on Instagram.

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JOLT Foundation / Facebook
The JOLT Foundation found a sample of heroin in Pekin that tested positive for fentanyl, a highly potent lab-made synthetic opiate.

…I would say too it's now more than ever, I think, more important to make small time drug busts,. … If you want to know what's going on, seems to me, you need to arrest people and, and, sit them down for a while, in jail, and see what then they can tell you after a while. And I think a lot of people will soon come to the idea that, ‘Maybe I need to start talking,’ because the drug withdrawals begin to take over. … The person is actually alive. You can then perhaps find that person some treatment. You know, seems like a far more humane way to go. The problem is departments feel so pressured and so hamstrung by the political tenor of our times with regard to, to criminal justice that they have said, ‘Okay, we're not going to make these small time busts anymore.’ But the problem is the small time busts are what leads you to the big ones.

Hannah Alani: Peoria has a very, very big healthcare community, healthcare industry. We have two major hospitals. There’s a medical school, there's a nursing school here. What message would you have for healthcare workers?

Sam Quinones: Health care workers are crucial in all this, as they are in so much. … The hospitals and their policies, and, and their protocols, and so on, are also very important. … When it comes to addiction, I do think there is not one solution. … What's amazing, I think, about the opioid epidemic, that I was definitely seeing after my book “Dreamland” came out, was that as awareness spread, what began to happen in every county I visited was they had formed one of these commissions or collaboratives or task forces, whatever you want to call it. … It was PTA, it was clergy, Chamber of Commerce, very important, hospital workers and presidents and doctors and college presidents. And so on. What was striking was that it wasn't just the normal law enforcement folks that you would think, but people kind of were coming to understand that this a community approach. Little League coaches and athletic coaches, they're very, very important in all this, you know. Teachers and so on. Principles. You know, you just see this wider idea of who needs to be involved in all this. And I thought that was extraordinarily healthy.

… I remember seeing in almost every county I went to, and I went to many counties giving talks about this stuff. I was in Peoria at one point, in 2016. I thought that that was just, you know, wonderful to watch. And it solidified the community. It brought together people who, even in small counties, you’d think they know each other. Actually, they don't. … What that did was break down those silos, that, that awkwardness, that I would say that we find very often now in our neighborhoods.

… And to me, that is the essential idea behind “The Least Of Us,” is that when we understand that we're only as vulnerable as folks, we understand that a lot of this comes from shredding of community bonds and networks. … Throughout our history as a species, we have known that the most powerful thing that we have to keep ourselves alive, is community. We have known that because when you stray off and go off, people die very, very quickly. For millions of years that that would happen. It's really, literally, only in the last 40 years, that we have come to the idea that we don't need anybody else. ‘We're fine on our own. … We don't agree with them politically, or religiously,’ or whatever. … And it seems to me that that is the most powerful way we have of solving our problems, is community bonds. And we have shredded those. And so now we are completely vulnerable, we are wide open to any scourge that comes along, you know, and so you have drugs, a main one. And that is a real problem.

Sam Quinones collage
Sam Quinones / COURTESY
Sam Quinones is the author of The New York Times bestseller "Dreamland." He recently published "The Least of Us."
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