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«NARCOTICS ANONYMOUS: ITS HISTORY AND CULTURE William White, Chris Budnick, and Boyd Pickard Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) stands as the benchmark by ...»

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William White, Chris Budnick, and Boyd Pickard

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) stands as the benchmark by which all other addiction recovery

mutual aid societies are measured due to its longevity, national and international dispersion, size

of its membership, adaptation of its program to other problems of living, influence on professionally-directed addiction treatment, cultural visibility, and the growing number of scientific studies on its active ingredients and their effects on long-term recovery. That said, other addiction recovery mutual aid societies are growing in number and in the diversity of their philosophies and methods. Although Narcotics Anonymous (NA) was one of the earliest adaptations of the AA program, NA remains less well-known among addiction professionals.

The purpose of this paper, abridged from the forthcoming new edition of Slaying the Dragon:

The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, is to provide an overview of the history and culture of NA and to distinguish the NA program from AA and other recovery mutual aid societies.

Introduction Addiction recovery mutual aid societies rise within unique historical contexts that can exert profound and prolonged effects on their character. Just as the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is best understood in the context of the repeal of Prohibition and the challenges of the Great Depression, the history of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is best understood in the cultural context of the 1950s. It was in this decade that the notion of “good” drugs and “bad” drugs became fully crystallized. Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine achieved the status of culturally celebrated drugs as an exploding pharmaceutical industry poured out millions of over- the-counter and prescription psychoactive drugs. Heroin and cannabis became increasingly demonized in the wake of a post-World War II opiate addiction epidemic. Social panic triggered harsh new anti-drug laws. Known addicts were arrested for “internal possession” and prohibited from associating via “loitering addict” laws. Any gathering of recovering addicts for mutual support was subjected to regular police surveillance. Mid-century treatments for addiction included electroconvulsive therapy (“shock treatment”), psychosurgery (prefrontal lobotomies), and prolonged institutionalization. This is the inhospitable soil in which NA grew.

Two 1935 events were critical to the eventual rise of recovery mutual aid groups for drug addiction: the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and its subsequent outreach to hospitals and prisons, and the opening of the first federal “Narcotics Farm” (prison hospital) in Lexington, Kentucky.1 This article will explore the history of NA, but read carefully, because there was more than one NA, only one of which survived to carry its message of hope to addicts around the world.

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Within four years of the founding of AA, individuals addicted to opiates and other drugs began exploring whether mutual support and practicing AA’s 12 Steps might offer a means of recovery. Ground zero for transmission of the AA program to drug addicts was the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Opened May 25, 1935, and widely known as the “Narcotics Farm” or “Narco,” this prison/hospital treated people addicted to narcotics who had been sentenced for federal drug crimes and those who applied for voluntary treatment.2 One enduring outcome of Narco was the discovery there that the program of Alcoholics Anonymous could be successfully applied to other drug addictions.

Dr. Tom, a physician who had been an alcoholic before developing a twelve-year addiction to morphine, entered the Narcotics Farm in 1939 to take “the cure” and while there, found a newly published book—Alcoholics Anonymous—that changed his life.3 Upon returning to Shelby, North Carolina, in the fall of 1939, Dr. Tom M. and three other men held the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in North Carolina.4 Dr. Tom M. is the first known person to achieve sustained recovery from morphine addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous,5 and the Shelby group became a resource for AA General Headquarters in New York to respond to inquiries about a solution for drug addiction.6 Early experiments in applying AA’s Twelve Steps to the problem of opiate addiction span a period in which AA was becoming increasingly conscious of “other drugs.” AA member “Doc N.” wrote a letter to the AA Grapevine in 1944 suggesting a “hopheads corner” through which AA members who were also recovering from narcotic addiction could share their experience, strength, and hope.7 This was followed by a long series of Grapevine articles about drugs (narcotics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and amphetamines), including a 1945 warning from AA co-founder Bill W. about the dangers of “goofballs” in which he acknowledged that he had once nearly killed himself with chloral hydrate. Early Grapevine articles became the basis for a series of AA pamphlets, beginning in 1948 with Sedatives: Are they an A.A. Problem?8

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 The alcoholic has a “special susceptibility to habit-forming drugs of all types” (1952, p.


 Pills often lead to a resumption of drinking and loss of sobriety.

 A “pill jag” should be considered a slip.

 “The problems of the pill-taker are the same as those of the alcoholic” (1948, p. 8).

 Pill-takers are often psychopathic personalities, and AA members should only concern themselves with the “disease of alcoholism” (1948, p.9).

 AA members should refrain from administering sedatives as part of their 12-Step work— a not uncommon practice during this period.

The creation of the AA Grapevine in 1944 created the conduit through which addicts in AA first recognized their mutual presence and reached out to one another. During these early AA Grapevine exchanges, Dr. Tom suggested the possibility of establishing an AA group for addicts at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington.9 Two and a half years later, another AA member, Houston S., turned this idea into a reality.

Houston S. and Addicts Anonymous

AA outreach to prisons grew throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, as did prison-based AA groups. Current and former members of prisonbased AA groups communicated through newsletters bearing such names as Alconaire (South Dakota), Alky Argot (Wisconsin), BAR-LESS (Indiana), The Corrector (Illinois), The Cloud Chaser (Minnesota), Cross Roads (Quebec, Canada), Eye Opener (Ohio), Folsomite (California), New View (New Hampshire), PenPointers (Minnesota), The Inventory (North Carolina), and The Signet (Virginia).10 The message of 12-Step recovery was first carried to addicts in prison by Houston S., an AA member without a history of other drug addictions.11 Houston S. developed a severe drinking problem after his training as a civil engineer at the Virginia Military Institute (1910-1914) and service in the U.S. Marine Corps (1918-1919).12 Family members repeatedly nursed him back to temporary health until Houston finally found permanent sobriety within AA in Montgomery, Alabama, in June 1944. From the earliest days of his recovery, he developed an evangelic fervor for helping others.

Cover to 1959 issue of The AlconAire To the occasional embarrassment of his family, Courtesy South Dakota State University Library Houston would share his recovery story to anyone at

–  –  –

~ 4 ~   Addicts Anonymous group meetings were completely voluntary. By 1950, Addicts Anonymous had a membership of more than 200 patients at the hospital.21 Membership declined by the 1960's when regular meeting attendance was roughly 35 men and 28 women.22 The meetings followed a format similar to AA meetings, and guidance for personal recovery was based on an adaptation of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Within ten months of its founding, the secretary of Addicts Anonymous began correspondence with the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Headquarters (GSH). In a letter dated December 26, 1947, the secretary for the group requested that a letter and regular article about the group’s activities be published in the A.A. Grapevine.23 General Service Headquarter staff wrote back stating that they had forwarded the letter to the Grapevine staff.24 Within two months, a letter appeared in the February 1948 issue of the Grapevine titled “Addicts Anonymous Ends First Year.”25 Early correspondence with the Addicts Anonymous group from employees of the General

Service Headquarters was quite supportive. Charlotte L. wrote:

Naturally, all of us in AA want to do everything possible to help. We feel that your accomplishments in overcoming addiction through the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, in special application to your problems, is a wonderful one and we share your joy. As many of you go into the outside world, carrying the message to others who suffer similar addiction, it is to be hoped that you will be the means of helping many others while maintaining your own recovered states. Please write to us as often as your time permits. Tell us how the group is getting along, how those on parole or completely released are making out, and above all, tell us what we can do to help.26 Another GSH staff member, Bobbie B., corresponded with Clarance B., secretary of the Addicts Anonymous group, in March and April of 1949. Bobbie provided very supportive and

encouraging words to Clarance and the members of the Addicts Anonymous group:

We, too, know that some of you who have recovered from drug addiction can be greatly helped by joining Alcoholics Anonymous groups. I, personally, know several who have made the grade and are some of our finest members. On the whole, I think our AA members are extremely tolerant and kind to all who come to them. And, why shouldn’t we be? We have been through some pretty harrowing times with our alcohol addiction and who are we to criticize others who may have used something else? May I send a little suggestion: give yourselves every break you can in obtaining recovery. Use any help no matter from where it comes. That’s what we alcoholics had to do so why not you people?

Underneath it all, are we really so different? Doesn’t it add to the belief that underneath the few surface differences, we are much the same? You people are pioneers in this field of drug addiction. One day, Addicts Anonymous may be as well known as Alcoholics Anonymous. When that day comes, how grateful you all will be for the work and clear thinking of now. Just keep in mind that Bill and the very early members of AA went through the same problems of this misunderstanding that you people now face. And, most misunderstandings are based on ignorance.27 One of the most remarkable gestures of goodwill to the Addicts Anonymous group came when Bobbie mailed complimentary literature to Addicts Anonymous and suggested that, in the ~ 5 ~   absence of their own literature, members could substitute the word drugs for alcohol when reading the AA material.28 Bill W. also corresponded with the Addicts Anonymous group, but tended in his letters to focus upon the differences and tension that existed between alcoholics and addicts—a subject we will return to later in more detail. In a letter to Clarance B., secretary of the Addicts Anonymous

group, dated April 2, 1949, Bill writes:

While I make no doubt that underlying causes of alcohol and drug addiction are quite identical, it is a fact that the alcoholic feels himself a quite different, even a superior creature. To make the score a tie, it is probably true that the average addict looks down on the alcoholic. In fact I have seen that myself. Alcoholics and addicts are mutually exclusive and snobbish.29 Many of the Addicts Anonymous members who left Lexington were successfully helped by Alcoholics Anonymous groups in their local communities.30 Communication with members who had left Lexington came through an Addicts Anonymous newsletter, The Key, which was published by members working in the Narcotics Farm’s Vocational and Educational Unit.31 This newsletter discussed issues of concern to those undergoing treatment in Lexington or who were readjusting to community life as a person in recovery.

The spread of Addicts Anonymous from institutional settings to the community began with one man, Danny C., who like Houston S., became something of a recovery evangelist.

–  –  –

Danny C. was born July 7, 1907, in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Following the death of both his parents in Danny’s early childhood, he was taken in by a physician and later relocated to St.

Joseph, Missouri. There, Danny lived a fairly uneventful life until his first exposure to opiates sparked a 25-year addiction to morphine and heroin.32

–  –  –

His mother arranged for treatment for Danny and even moved to an isolated rural community where she thought he would be free of temptation—all to no avail. Danny spent nine of his next twenty years in prison on drug-related convictions.34 Danny C. was among the first patients admitted in Danny C.

1935 to the newly opened U.S. Public Health Service Courtesy Listen Magazine Hospital for addicts in Lexington, Kentucky. It was the first of his eight admissions over the ensuing 13 years. Following a suicide attempt and final readmission in 1948, Danny participated in Addicts Anonymous meetings and had a profound spiritual experience that served as a catalyst for his sustained recovery.35 It was during this time that Danny came under the mentorship of Houston S., who “inspired me to learn to hope, and to have faith, at long last….36 Following his final discharge from Lexington in April of 1949, Danny started Addicts Anonymous in New York City.37 He called the new group Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to avoid the potential confusion of two AAs.38 The NA created by Danny C. was not the NA that exists today, but Danny’s efforts first brought the NA name to national attention.

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