The Podcast Tracing the History of Opioid Addiction Treatment in America

    “Treating America’s Opioid Addiction,” an ongoing three-part podcast miniseries by the Science History Institute’s magazine Distillationsdetails America’s cultural and medical history with opioids.

    Each of the two episodes that have aired so far is structured around a particular treatment facility that exemplifies something about the conception of addiction at a given moment in U.S. history. The series follows a man named John Stallone, who was in and out of treatment facilities throughout the last century. Accompanied by Stallone’s coarse weathered voice, the hosts, Alexis Pederick and Elisabeth Berry Drago, enliven the story with assessments from experts, like drug historian Nancy Campbell, and archival audio film recordings.

    “Part One: The Narcotic Farm and the Promise of Salvation” examines the government-run prison-hospital, the Narcotic Farm, located in Lexington, Kentucky, where most people arrested on narcotic charges were sent from 1914, when the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed, through the 1960s. At the Narcotic Farm, prisoner-patients were subjected to a multitude of “therapies”– including so-called “moral therapy,” vocational therapy, and recreational therapy. Although most people at the Farm arrived on a drug-related conviction, others volunteered to attend, given the dearth of available treatment options for opioid addiction at the time.

    “Part Two: Synanon and the Tunnel Back To The Human Race” tells the story of Synanon, the  therapeutic community that opened in California in 1958, and was heralded as the first program to “cure” people addicted to opioids—a feat previously considered impossible. Stallone, a former patient of both Synanon and the Narcotic Farm, recalled the common phrase, “Once a junkie, always a junkie.” Synanon–possibly a portmanteau of “sin anonymous,” according to the podcast–did not include “any direct medical oversight” or staff members in its treatment process, instead favoring open, honest, and often aggressive criticism among participants, with the intention of making them “confront their sins and defects—which were considered the underlying causes of their addiction.” Already pushing the boundaries of what a treatment program could look like, Synanon eventually descended into a cult-like organization that no longer concerned itself with drug addiction at all. After the head of organization was accused of the attempted murder of a lawyer representing a former Synanon member, the group dissolved in 1991.

    “Part Three” of the miniseries airs October 16. The episode will examine the present state of treatment for opioid addiction, and offer a broader reflection on social forces that drive substance dependence. As historian Nancy Campbell provocatively puts it: “Have we perhaps created an unlivable world?”

    Image: Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin. Original photograph courtesy of University of Kentucky.

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