WASHINGTON — In its second hearing on the country’s raging drug crisis since President Trump directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the matter a public health emergency in October, the Senate health committee called a hearing with a single witness: a journalist.
Such hearings conventionally spotlight high-profile government officials and career advocates with deep expertise in a subject. Every hearing this committee and a similarly health-focused House panel held to specifically address the opioid epidemic since 2016 has featured at least four witnesses. A committee press staffer did not answer questions about why Sam Quinones was the only witness at this full committee hearing.
“It is unusual to have a single witness at our hearings,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee chairman, in his opening statement. “But this is an unusual topic.”
Quinones is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and author of the acclaimed book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” which chronicles how addiction has devastated the country. He told STAT in advance of the hearing that he was honored to be invited, and also surprised to be the only person testifying. He didn’t know the reason that he was the sole witness.
“I’m a little stunned, honestly, that that’s the case,” Quinones said Monday. “I’m just a reporter like you, man. A week ago, 10 days ago, I was on a hill in a shantytown in Tijuana, you know?”
Quinones’s main message for senators was that money and policy are important, but solutions will come not from short-term billion-dollar spending packages. Instead he advocated for more holistic approaches.
“The antidote to heroin is not naloxone, it is community,” Quinones said.
He spoke in broad strokes, invoking the way that America came together to send human beings into space and to rebuild Europe after World War II, encouraging the senators to speak directly with local leaders as well as individuals in recovery from opioid addiction to learn how to help them. He also had a few specific policy messages: We should improve rehabilitation services in local jails, reduce the unnecessarily high opioid prescriptions given after surgery, and build a collaborative relationship with Mexico to stop the transnational flow of drugs.
Many senators directly referenced his book or brought copies of it. “The book was great,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had the book beside her during the hearing. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked Quinones to sign a copy after the hearing concluded.
Quinones urged the politicians to pursue solutions that would not only help individuals suffering from opioid addiction, but that would also lead to a stronger society able to prevent other drugs from wreaking havoc in America.
On the details of how to fix the situation, he said, “I don’t have a clue. I’m just a guy, a reporter out there trying to understand this enormous country we have, and sometimes it’s hard.”
“That’s a pretty good description of the way we feel,” Alexander responded, chuckling.
While Quinones is an accomplished journalist, his knowledge of the situation is secondhand, a congressional historian pointed out.
“I’d want to know why a reporter, with at best secondhand knowledge, would be preferred over medical pros on the front line of the crisis,” said Lewis Gould, an emeritus professor of history at University of Texas at Austin who wrote a book about the Senate in 2006.
Quinones acknowledged that he wasn’t the expert. When Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked Quinones about potential policy solutions, the journalist urged the senator to talk to other people.
“[The] best idea that I can come up with is to consult those people who are already working on that,” Quinones said.
Erin Mershon contributed reporting.