Book Review: Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Title: Dreamland

Author: Sam Quinones

Genre: Nonfiction

Subgenre: Medical/Crime


In 1929, in the blue-collar city of Portsmouth, Ohio, a company built a swimming pool the size of a football field; named Dreamland, it became the vital center of the community. Now, addiction has devastated Portsmouth, as it has hundreds of small rural towns and suburbs across America–addiction like no other the country has ever faced. How that happened is the riveting story of Dreamland.

With a great reporter’s narrative skill and the storytelling ability of a novelist, acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones weaves together two classic tales of capitalism run amok whose unintentional collision has been catastrophic. The unfettered prescribing of pain medications during the 1990s reached its peak in Purdue Pharma’s campaign to market OxyContin, its new, expensive–extremely addictive–miracle painkiller. Meanwhile, a massive influx of black tar heroin–cheap, potent, and originating from one small county on Mexico’s west coast, independent of any drug cartel–assaulted small town and mid-sized cities across the country, driven by a brilliant, almost unbeatable marketing and distribution system. Together these phenomena continue to lay waste to communities from Tennessee to Oregon, Indiana to New Mexico.

Introducing a memorable cast of characters–pharma pioneers, young Mexican entrepreneurs, narcotics investigators, survivors, and parents–Quinones shows how these tales fit together. Dreamland is a revelatory account of the corrosive threat facing America and its heartland.

My Review

There are a lot important sociopolitical issues in the United States that have made headlines over the past decade, but one of the most devastating has been the sharp rise in drug addiction related to opiates and heroin that has caused widespread tragedy all across America, particularly in midwestern and Appalachian areas that have never experienced widespread drug issues before.

In Dreamland, Sam Quinones chronicles the two-sided issue that led to this catastrophe: the surge in opiate painkiller prescriptions driven by paper-thin research and heavy marketing campaigns by pharmaceutical companies, and the creeping spread of easily accessibly black tar heroin across the country, driven by an ever-expanding network of dealers from one specific region of Mexico.

Throughout the book, Quinones alternates between explaining how the heroin dealers penetrated different areas of the country—and how law enforcement was painfully slow to catch on, because these particular dealers used new, innovative drug sales tactics—and how the use of opiates grew so widespread that addiction rates exploded in the 90s and early 2000s.

Amid the factual information are numerous stories of personal tragedies—parents who lost children to overdoses, people whose lives were ruined by heroin use, etc.—which add a great deal of intimate depth to what could otherwise be a rather dry story of medical research mishaps and somewhat repetitive tales of heroin dealer cells.

That said, I did have a persistent issue with the book: it continually jumps between the three different perspectives, inserting what, at times, feel like random anecdotes about personal loss in between more academic-sounding sections on the systemic issues within the American healthcare system and criminal cases pursued against the various heroin dealers.

Overall, I found Dreamland extremely informative—I only had vague knowledge of the underlying issues that led to the opiate epidemic—but it wasn’t the most enthralling or coherent read for me.


Rating: 3 out of 5.