Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review − The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth

Tue, 05/09/2023 - 3:44pm

SWJ El Centro Book Review − The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth

Pilar Glaser


Sam Quinones, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021 [ISBN 978-1635574357, Hardback; EBook: 978-I-63557-473-I, 432 pages] 

In the clinical world of addiction research and recovery, investigative reporter Sam Quinones’s latest work explores the personal consequences of addiction and their implications for broader drug markets. The strengthening hold of addictive substances across America has outweighed societal awareness and the ability of affected communities to cope. Quinones uses a multi-pronged approach to help us understand why we are predisposed to addiction, how capitalism reflects this problem, and how communities are working to heal in the wake of a drug crisis. 

This latest work has also created a foundation for understanding the role of criminal networks in the world of addiction. Emphasizing the increased levels of violence on both sides of the US-Mexico border, Quinones points to the association between the evolution of the Mexican drug trade and the growing level of production. This shared border has become the most popular route for moving drugs into the country and has positioned Mexico as the greatest drug trafficking issue for the United States. Quinones continues to dive into the growing drug crisis in America following his 2015 publication, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Quinones’s latest work has remained true to highlighting the impact of the Mexican drug trade and the deeply personal effects felt across America of the opioid crisis.

Just as there is no instant solution to addiction, the indiscriminate grasp illegal substances have over Americans is not a new problem. Quinones investigates how the modern drug trade formed and how no corner of the United States was left unaffected. As he describes, it was as if everything was pushing towards increased addiction: revolutionary medicines hit the market, farmers sought to improve their standard of living, and capitalism changed the marketing world forever. This included understanding the shift of Mexican cartels from plant-based drugs to lab-produced synthetic drugs and the role of foreign producers, such as Colombia and China, in the transnational drug trade.

Drug production became cheaper, more lucrative, and lower risk than ever before. However, the risk only increased for those addicted to these supplies that popped up in every city and rural town. Quinones describes a recurring story from people across America about how the drugs were devolving into a less pure, and oftentimes unknown, combination of drugs. This left communities to grapple with a disease they did not want to acknowledge or understand.

Quinones’s extensive investigation in small towns across America highlights how we have fallen short of addressing this new international economy and how unlikely groups of people are finding new ways to support each other in the wake of these shortcomings. His emphasis on empathy as a first step to change is especially important in today’s world, and a notion this book evokes well. Quinones traveled across America to speak with the people on the frontlines of this crisis including law enforcement, families, city officials, volunteers, and researchers.  These interviews are not just the harrowing tales of addiction, but real examples of how communities are making a difference and celebrating the little successes. Each community success helps guide the next and provides a starting point for the next community fighting the same battle. These successes have led to more accessibility to rehabilitation, changes in the judicial and prison system, and more research into why these drugs are so effective at controlling users. However, the battle against addiction is ongoing and this sentiment applies to the work society can do to help those trapped in this cycle.

Every part of society shares a theme with this epidemic. Quinones draws similarities and lessons including: how the free market has dissolved, how big pharma has hurt America, how the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the need for help and community, and how the Black Lives Matter movement has recognized the importance of no longer ignoring pain. Just as the world has become more interconnected, so has the world of drugs. To reduce the production and sale of addictive substances by transnational crime organizations (TCOs), the United States has limited the sale of chemicals used in drug production and created joint operations with Mexican authorities to disrupt illicit operations. However, despite these efforts, small networks and lab facilities have become commonplace in Mexico. Quinones’s work informs a society where no one is untouched by drugs, whether it be through friends, family, money, work, or the people we walk past on the street. Recognition of the problem and encouraging empathy for those struggling are Quinones’s first steps towards a better America.

This book is a useful tool to end the stigma around addiction and encourage a fundamental change in the way the legal system approaches drug use. Written for a wide audience, this book takes the time to create a foundational understanding of how drugs have continued to impact the United States and the role of TCOs in this ongoing problem. Community recommendations for change span from ending the “over prescribing of painkillers pushed by big pharma” to the “county jails [that] are a disservice to addicts.” The fundamental knowledge of how the drug production process is growing and “what was once pure party drugs has become crippling hallucinogens,” points to how our approach must evolve to meet these new needs. This change in quality has made it more dangerous for medical staff and law enforcement alike. As the drugs change a user’s brain to “prioritize the high they chase over survival,” recovery becomes more difficult. Applicable to both those struggling and the members of the community attempting to create new programs of support, Quinones describes “recovery means showing mercy [during relapse] and learning from [our] failures.”

The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth helps communities to understand the role they play in recovery and how law enforcement can help reduce the number of violent confrontations involving drugs. This book will change the way readers consider law enforcement, medical care, the prison system, and the hardships of others and is especially important reading for policy debates on fentanyl and Mexico.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Pilar Glaser is pursuing a Master’s in Homeland Security Studies at Sam Houston State University. She is interested in using quantitative analytics to investigate transnational crime. She is a former intelligence designator for the United States Naval Officer Candidate School and Division I athlete at Loyola University Chicago. Her El Centro project assesses crimes in the United States and Mexico using social network analysis.


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