When Sam Quinones finished writing his 2015 best-selling exposé on black tar heroin and oxycodone—Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic—he figured he was pretty much done. “I thought that was my last book about drugs. After all, what could be worse than heroin?”
Turns out there’s an answer to that question, which Quinones, 63, reveals in his latest book, The Least of Us, a deep dive into the even darker, even more destructive world of meth addiction. According to Quinones, a cheaper and far more potent strain of speed from Mexico has been flooding the country, a synthetic-chemical cocktail so potent it can send many users into rapid psychosis.
“It’s accompanied by severe, very rapid onset schizophrenia and paranoia,” he says. “Hallucinations and demons. Monsters in the basement kind of stuff.”
The former Los Angeles Times journalist sat down with editor-in-chief Maer Roshan for a lengthy discussion about this latest phase of America’s endlessly mutating drug epidemic.
Since it was published, Quinones’s book has generated a fair share of controversy. His assertion that the new meth has been the unspoken culprit behind the nation’s out-of-control homelessness crisis has drawn darts from the Washington Post and the New York Times and praise from conservative pundits like Andrew Sullivan. But Quinones says he’s nonplussed. “I’m not really a political guy,” he says. “I didn’t write this to score political points. I just reported what I saw.”
You started out as a crime reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Is that how you became involved in reporting on the drug trade?
I was actually a crime reporter long before that. My first journalism job was at the Stockton Record. In 1994, though, I moved down to Mexico and worked there as a freelance reporter for ten years, until 2004, when I came home to work for the L.A. Times.
As a journalist in Mexico, you obviously get some insight into the drug trade, but when I was there I really just covered immigration and politics. But shortly after I arrived at the Times, the drug wars kicked off in earnest, and things got crazier and more savage with every passing year. Eventually, the Times realized it needed to devote more attention to the issue, so it formed a team to cover it. My job was to cover how drugs were trafficked once they crossed the border and arrived here in the U.S.
See Los Angeles’ exclusive photo essay, “In the Shadows of Meth in Skid Row”
You wrote a book about it.
Dreamland told the story of how the enormous use of opioid painkillers had created a massive population of addicts throughout the country. When American authorities finally cracked down on crooked doctors and pill mills, a lot of people were suddenly left stranded. Many of them turned to heroin instead. For 20 years, heroin use in this country had declined or stayed flat, and suddenly it began spiking again. Mexican cartels rushed in to fill that demand.
So I wrote about these entrepreunerial guys who had developed a method of selling black tar heroin very much like pizza—you know, like you call up and they deliver—and then they expanded to a Domino’s-like franchise that exported to the rest of the country. That’s what really pushed me to understand the nuances of the drug world and all that stuff that informed Dreamland.
It’s in some ways a story of technological innovation: By changing the way drugs were manufactured, traffickers no longer had to rely on traditional methods to produce meth and heroin. Instead, they hired chemists to create vast quantities of synthetic knockoffs that they could sell at rock-bottom prices. It was a game changer that transformed the drug trade and addiction in America—and caused massive social problems here that even the traffickers could never have expected.
How were synthetic drugs a game changer? How did they drive prices down?
They upended the whole drug economy. Suddenly, if you’re a drug trafficker, you don’t need land or water to produce your goods. You don’t have to depend on sunshine or rainfall. You no longer have to be exposed to DEA helicopters. You bring it all indoors; you’re in a lab. You collapse the number of people that are involved. It’s so much less risky. And the drugs, particularly in the case of fentanyl, are so much more potent.
According to your book, there was a change in how meth was made.
Ephedrine-based meth was widely available both in Mexico and in the United States in the late ’80s into the early 1990s. It wasn’t illegal, but it was kind of regulated. The police surveilled the warehouses just to see who was buying—no big deal. But then they got aggressive. So eventually the cooks that had been able to set up for many years in Temecula in Riverside County and in San Diego, little by little, those guys began to feel the heat.
By the early 2000s, they started to head back to Mexico, even though by 2008, the Mexican government had made it illegal for anyone to possess ephedrine. So suddenly this method that they had been using for almost 20 years kind of went extinct, and they had to make their meth another way.
You say in your book that the new synthetic meth has different effects than its old, ephedrine-based predecessor. Can you explain the difference?
Well, ephedrine-based meth was a very euphoric, social drug. You know, you did it with other people and wanted to be around other people. You stayed up all night partying, you wanted to be friends for life. It was big with the biker community and huge in the gay community—huge in the gay community.
But starting around 2009, the meth effectively changed. It seemed to have a different and much darker impact on the people who were using it. One of the first people to clue me into this was a veteran meth user named Eric, who lives in L.A. He’d been using for almost a decade, and for several years he held his life together—you know, he had a job, he had a girlfriend, a car. I mean, his life wasn’t great; he was constantly making up excuses for why he had to come in late to work and that kind of thing. But he wasn’t on the street.
And then, in 2009, the drug changed one night. It was not the same drug. It was a drug that had him going crazy. He was imagining his girlfriend hiding men in the apartment, in the mattresses. And he began to stab the mattresses with a butcher knife. He went out of his mind. No more euphoria; now it was intense paranoia. And he never got back to that euphoric meth again.
Finally, his life just completely crashed. He told me he stayed using it for the next four years, during which time he was gradually alienated from everybody. Eventually, he ends up homeless.
And in 2013, just as the supplies are really about to explode, he gets sober through the VA as an ex-Marine. Before that, they had diagnosed him with schizophrenic. Now he stops using, and little by little his sanity kind of returns more or less, and they decide he’s actually not schizophrenic at all.
What happened to him started happening to thousands of people across the country. And many addicts who had previously managed to tread water suddenly found themselves on the streets.
Are there statistics that back up this observation?
It’s certainly reflected in the rise of homelessness. In some places, the correlation was masked by a focus on the high cost of housing. And that’s definitely part of the equation in some places. But the same thing was happening in other parts of the country that have no issue of affordable housing—Rust Belt or rural areas where housing costs are stable or declining.
I write in my book about Clarksburg, West Virginia, a Rust Belt town where many people live in trailers. But all of a sudden, after the meth poured in, they started seeing tent encampments there as well.
There’s a tiny town in New Mexico where housing costs a fraction of what it does in L.A., and there, too, people who own their houses outright are losing them because they can’t control their lives. Even if they paid off their mortgage, they can no longer afford the taxes or the electricity. In all these places, you see the same phenomenon—the psychosis, hallucinations, with an attendant increase in homelessness.
And in time, the tent encampments we’re now used to in L.A. begin springing up nationwide. I spoke with a guy who had been studying meth for 20 years. He tells me people go out of their minds very rapidly. It doesn’t take years of steady use anymore; it’s now just weeks or months. It’s immediate. They’re out of their minds, screaming at demons. No one wants to live with someone who’s doing that at three in the morning, or who’s taking apart the TV for 12 hours, or who’s rewiring his car for nine hours. And so they begin to kind of fade away from people who are sober and retreat to the streets. And so you start seeing encampments that kind of function as meth colonies.
And that’s where the tents come in. A tent is perfect housing for someone who believes the entire world is a threat—it’s private and portable. Conversely, if you’re in that mindset, the very last place you wanna be is in a homeless shelter.
You say in your book that many things that Angelenos may recognize in the homeless encampments—like hoarding—may actually be related to the peculiar effects of the meth epidemic.
I’ve noticed that everybody on this kind of meth is just obsessed with bicycles. Bicycles allow you to go around and look for stuff that you might be able to sell, or something that in your psychotic state you think one day you’re gonna need. That’s the reason why you find so much junk and car and bicycle carcasses and all that. It just naturally kind of occurs to people in this state to constantly hoard stuff.
There has been pushback to some of the claims you’ve made in your book. I think there’s a section where you estimate that up to 90 percent of people in L.A.’s homeless encampments are drug users.
On meth. A very high percentage. Here’s the thing (and I’ll get back to answering your question in a minute): It’s not just that meth causes homelessness. It also perpetuates it because you might be homeless for another reason entirely. Maybe you’re a registered sex offender. You know, the number of places where registered sex offenders can live is very limited. And so you can’t find housing and you’re homeless. And then on the street, you start using meth because it’s dirt cheap and so available. And pretty soon you can’t get out of it. It prevents you from leaving homelessness as much as it creates homelessness.
And it also makes it so you’re not able to follow basic stuff: You need to maintain a house. You need to
go to work. You need not to be filling your house with trash and taking apart TVs all day long. It keeps you divorced from reality. That’s another part of it. It’s not just that it creates homelessness and perpetuates it—it also numbs you to the reality of what you’re living in.
The connections you make between this new form of meth and homelessness are obvious. And many people on the front lines are affirming what you’re positing. So why isn’t this subject showing up in any reporting?
Oh, man, you really want to go there. I could give you a few hunches. I would say, first of all, newspapers have fewer people than ever. The media have been shredded. Most news organizations no longer have the same budget or the number of people that are needed.
It’s a very, very important part to this story. Because in order to understand this, you have to be willing to put in the time to dig below the easy answers, right? And the easy answer is that it’s the high cost of housing. And certainly housing costs here are enormously high. But that’s the only solution that’s allowed to be discussed. Nothing else is allowed.
There’s a well-intentioned sense some in the media have that these people are victims, and we should not be discussing the role that drugs play in this crisis because we don’t want to stigmatize them any further. But that kind of thinking has really cast a shadow over the discussion of these issues, even among people on the front lines of this crisis.
I talked to a number of treatment providers down at Skid Row, two who actually lowered their voices when discussing this with me—like they were worried that someone was listening in and would report them to the authorities.
Why would a treatment provider feel afraid to talk with you about addiction?
Because they’ve been at too many meetings with housing advocates and homeless advocates who angrily pile on them for suggesting that drugs and mental illness could possibly be a part of the issue. And yet when you talk to these people privately, the common denominator everybody talks about is meth. They report that the people they are now seeing are increasingly psychotic and incapable of self-care. They are literally going out of their minds but can’t get out of the psychosis because the meth is so common and so prevalent. And getting them into treatment is enormously difficult. Those aren’t problems that would be solved simply by giving someone an apartment. But you can’t talk about that because the discussion is confined to the high cost of housing.
What you’re saying seems to undercut a lot of the solutions we’re exploring to end homelessness. You’re suggesting that those approaches are doomed unless we address the main issue.
Yes. Addiction to methamphetamine has no treatment other than prolonged abstinence. So treatment starts by separating the user from the drug. You have to detox people first and then keep them abstinent for a sustained period. That’s never been easy, but new meth has really made things worse.
I spoke with a woman who runs a shelter in Nashville. She worked in homeless care for 30 years in different parts of the country. She told me she used to have all their therapists be life coaches because the process of addiction and recovery involved teaching people how to get back into normal life: how to get a job, how to get your license back, how to apply for housing. All these were things you could teach people. But over the past few years, they stopped that. She said, “We don’t have life coaches anymore because the people we’re seeing now, their brains are so devastated that they can’t process even basic things. It’s a different order of magnitude.”
Another treatment woman in Tennessee told me that her facility used to keep people in residential treatment for nine months. Now it’s five months before they even know what kind of person they are. They arrive with this zombie look, stripped of memory, stripped of personality.
As you know, there are some who argue that your descriptions of these people are sensational and overblown. One reviewer in the Washington Post noted that the media have always demonized super drugs. He noted that in the ’90s, everyone was yelling that crack was supposed to be this demonic super drug, and then it slowly petered out.
I was a crime reporter in Stockton during the crack epidemic. It was absolutely catastrophic. There was no need to sensationalize anything about crack. I saw the devastation that it caused firsthand for four full years. Many lives were destroyed and lost. That was no hyperbole.
I think a problem is that so much of
this seems subjective. As the New York Times pointed out, there really is no study or lab tests to prove that this new meth is really so much more damaging than its predecessor.
There is no neuroscience. There’s no rat test. There’s no mice study. All I’m giving you is the kind of reporting that you and every other reporter in L.A. can corroborate. If you really get out there, you will find this out, too. It’s an absurdity that it took a book writer like me to get the scoop. This story should have been done by a newspaper reporter in 2018. It was all pretty clear back then if anyone bothered to report on it.
Why do you think that reporting has been so scarce?
It’s because there’s a party line about this issue that impedes people from writing about it. It’s the woke party line, and it says, “Thou shalt not talk about this. Otherwise you will be deemed some pariah.” It’s a self-censorship that I think a lot of reporters engage in. It’s a very scary thing. See how many stories the Los Angeles Times has written on homelessness that include the word “methamphetamine.”
Look, homelessness is an enormously complex problem. There’s a lot of reasons why people are homeless, and some of them have nothing to do with methamphetamine. There are some homeless people who can be immediately helped with housing. Absolutely. But the only discussion in Los Angeles around getting people into housing is how to build more affordable housing. And that discussion must be part of the mix. But with all this mounting evidence, it’s an outrage that it’s the only solution that’s being discussed.
To what extent do you think the meth and fentanyl problem are factors in increasing crime rates?
Well, it’s hard for me to say if more severe crime is connected to this. But I would say that a lot of the small-scale crime is due to it. That’s important to note: Just as all this meth was beginning to inundate California, we passed Proposition 47, which turned a lot of felony drug crimes into misdemeanors. Great.
OK, but the problem is that nobody gets treatment anymore. Because the only way you are going to get people into drug-rehabilitation treatment and away from the very prevalent and powerful dope that they’re on is by using the leverage of the criminal justice system. People say, “Oh, no, you can’t do that!” But I’ve known too many addicts who have told me, “The best thing that ever happened to me was getting arrested. I would be dead had I not been arrested.” Many people find sobriety while being locked up. But I’m saying that once we remove the leverage to felony charges, it’s very difficult to push people into treatment.
Your book describes how people have come together and tried to make a dent in this problem. But there are lots of macro, global things leading to the crisis with meth and fentanyl. How do we address those?
At the macro level, Mexico has done virtually nothing to deal with the intense, pervasive, toxic influence of drug trafficking in its society and the corruption of the criminal justice system. That’s one. But we’ve done nothing to stop the flow of guns from the United States south to Mexico, arming those people, allowing those folks the impunity that they enjoy to be able to create methamphetamine and fentanyl in such catastrophic quantities. What is the price that we as Americans pay for allowing AK-47s made in Eastern Europe to be legally sold in the United States and then smuggled south to Mexico in one way or another? The price that we are paying is the encampments under our overpasses. It’s a binational issue for each government, and both nations are saying, “It’s the other guy. It’s not our problem. You deal with it.”
There are thousands of people who need intensive, long-term care. I just don’t understand where this goes from here.
Our thinking on drug treatment hasn’t changed for many, many years. But the drugs have. They are very, very different regardless of what that guy at The Washington Post says. Yes, in different times along the way, the drugs that you were being presented with were scary things. Crack was frightening. I saw it firsthand in a city that was inundated, and it is absolutely scary. I never thought anything could be worse than crack. And now, all of a sudden, here we are.
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