In Woodstock, part of the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia (two hours north of Roanoke), a big shipment of heroin has just arrived on Interstate 81 from Harlem. Local sergeant Brent Lutz is investigating it, tracking the movements of two suspected low-level dealers. Lutz receives lots of money and resources from the government, with the goal of finding out who is involved with the local heroin ring and who is the boss of the two dealers.
Macy begins telling the story of heroin in Woodstock, Virginia by following the perspective of a law enforcement officer. This is a perspective that many other real and fictional depictions of heroin also follow; however, Macy’s conventional beginning is only the set-up for a more complicated story that will consider other perspectives. Perhaps she begins with Lutz’s perspective because it is most familiar to many in her audience.
In late 2012, Lutz (then age 30) becomes the lead narcotics investigator in Woodstock. Though he was working in other departments for the past six months, he’d worked in narcotics before, and in 2008, he made a major drug bust at George’s Chicken, a local area known as a haven for meth and other drugs. During the six months that Lutz was out of narcotics, heroin exploded in his community. Lutz hears from an informant that there is a major heroin supplier out there who is known only by his nickname: D.C.
One of the common themes during the opioid epidemic is a lack of information. In this case, the lack of information is dramatized by the lengths that Lutz has to go through to learn about a major heroin supplier who is known only by his nickname, D.C. At age 30, Lutz is a little older than some of the people profiled in the book who struggle with addiction, like Scott Roth or Jesse Bolstridge, but he is from the same generation. Though Lutz isn’t a drug user, Macy invites the audience to compare his life to other people around his age in the book, highlighting both similarities and differences.
Woodstock differs significantly from Lee County, with better indicators of average health: fewer smokers, fewer uninsured, and less drug-related mortality. Opioids are also prescribed at a much lower rate. Still, the declining workforce is a problem in Woodstock as it is in most parts of the country during the early 2010s, and this leaves the area vulnerable to the epidemic.
The better health statistics in Woodstock once again emphasize the point that no amount of prior good health is enough to make someone immune to the effects of opioids. Macy also shows how the changing economic situation (particularly the Great Recession) helped make certain places more vulnerable to heroin than they were before.
By spring 2013, Lutz has not yet learned the real name of the supplier nicknamed D.C. He has, however, learned some other important details: D.C. is Black and in his mid-30s, and he drives an older Mercedes SUV. His heroin enters Virginia on Interstate 81, typically carried in cheddar cheese Pringles cans by young women who take a bus from Chinatown in New York City, earning about $300 to $500 for each round trip.
Macy notes that D.C. was Black in part because the part of Virginia where he lived was predominantly white and this made him an anomaly. Race also plays a role in the American criminal justice system, which Macy explores in greater depth later. Macy again mentions Interstate 81, which is not just a physical road that carried heroin but also a symbol for how urban, suburban, and rural America are all connected.
D.C. doesn’t do heroin himself; he is only interested in the money. Though his supply comes from Harlem, D.C. realizes he can make a lot more selling to rural places like Woodstock than he can selling in the city.
Macy shifts the story back and forth between Lutz’s perspective and D.C.’s. Notably, D.C. is only interested in heroin for the money. This echoes the profit motives of the pharmaceutical companies who make opioids, the doctors who prescribe them, and—interesting enough—money is also a factor in using these drugs, as many opiate users are motivated to use because of economic losses they face in their lives.
Lutz’s work begins to take over his life—he is on his phone at weddings and out working on Christmas Day. Ever since the 2010 reformulation of OxyContin, Lutz has been tracking heroin users, many of whom make commutes to Baltimore, which is a major staging area. (Twentysomething users from Roanoke also make the trek to Baltimore, where they don’t need as many connections as in New Jersey and New York.)
Macy is showing how Lutz’s work becomes its own sort of addiction. She isn’t necessarily saying that being devoted to a job is the same thing as being addicted to heroin, but she is noting that Lutz is not as different from people on the “wrong” side of the law as he might at first seem.
Late in March 2013, Lutz gets a new clue about D.C. A routine traffic stop catches Devon Gray, who is one of D.C.’s key distributors. Gray peels out and attempts to get away. Bill Metcalf, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), has already been chasing Gray for three weeks. Lutz and Metcalf have teamed up before on cases. ATF agents are known for being very gung-ho, and Metcalf in particular has a reputation among his peers for being “a pain in the ass.” The high-speed chase after Gray ends with the officer crashing and Gray getting away.
The role of random chance is a recurring theme in Dopesick, and in this case, it’s a random traffic stop that leads authorities to find out more information about D.C. At the same time, however, D.C. is in a dangerous business, and perhaps it was only a matter of time before random chance caught up with him. The role of random chance once again highlights the similarities between D.C. and a heroin user (who all face the constant risk of an unexpected overdose).
Though the Obama administration attempts to rein in excessive drug enforcement, particularly against users, high-level and violent dealers remain a target, and the D.C. case seems to qualify. Gray is mid-level and may be useful as a witness, although dealing with low- and mid-level user-dealers always comes with risks. They target Gray with a set-up where Metcalf offers him a gun. Gray cooperates immediately.
One of the biggest questions about drug enforcement is who should be punished for drug crimes and how. Under the standards of the Obama administration (which was arguably one of the more lenient recent American administrations), D.C. is clearly someone who would be a target for prosecution. Macy presents his story to let readers reach their own conclusions about whether this is a good policy, though she herself seems to favor policies more lenient than the ones in place during the Obama administration.
Gray reveals that D.C.’s real name is Ronnie Jones. It turns out he isn’t the only dealer in the area—Kareem Shaw is the other big name. Jones lives in a low-income apartment on the outskirts of Roanoke and runs a ring that traffics drugs in seven counties, making him possibly the largest dealer in the state. Jones’s strategy of importing heroin in bulk to small towns helps him make twice as much as dealers in Baltimore, but it also puts him at risk of being discovered.
Despite his wealth from drug trafficking, Jones still lives in low-income housing, highlighting the contradictions in his life. Though in some ways he is wealthy and influential, all of his power is built on a precarious drug-running empire that is poised to topple at any minute. Macy asks her audience why someone would choose such a risky lifestyle: is Jones attracted to danger, or does he not have any other options?
Jones’s case becomes the most complex one that Metcalf has ever worked on. They make charts with photos to keep the whole ring of collaborators straight, which reminds them of TV shows like The Wire. They call the chart FUBI because of an interview between Metcalf and one of the lieutenants in Shaw’s organization. Shaw’s lieutenant refused to talk, so Metcalf told Shaw’s lieutenant that he could connect him to a federal case and come back with a warrant. The lieutenant replied “Fuck. You. Bring it,” so Metcalf did.
Macy shows how fictional depictions of drug dealing, like The Wire, have an effect on how drug enforcement operates in the real world. She shows both how fiction has the power to help people understand the world around them while also showing how it can distort things (Metcalf’s world of drug enforcement is much less glamorous and exciting than how it is depicted in many network TV shows.)