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Reaping a Sad Harvest: A "Narcotic Farm" That Tried to Grow Recovery [Slide Show]

A federal prison in Kentucky was a temporary home for thousands, including Sonny Rollins, Peter Lorre and William S. Burroughs as well as a lab for addiction treatments such as LSD



Arthur Rothstein

From 1935 to 1975, just about everyone busted for drugs in the U.S. was sent to the United States Narcotic Farm outside Lexington, Ky. Equal parts federal prison, treatment center, research laboratory and farm, this controversial institution was designed not only to rehabilitate addicts, but to discover a cure for drug addiction.

Now a new documentary, The Narcotic Farm, reveals the lost world of this institution, based on rare film footage, numerous documents, dozens of interviews of former staff, inmates and volunteer patients, and more than 2,000 photographs unearthed from archives across the country. Premiering October 26 on public television in Philadelphia and Salisbury, Md., the film will appear on public television stations across the country throughout November. A book accompanying the documentary includes rare and previously unpublished pictures of "Narco," as the institution was called locally, a selection of which can be seen in this slide show.

View Slide Show of the Narcotic Farm

According to the book, the institution became a premier center for research into drug addiction and treatment, advancing everything from the use of methadone to treat heroin withdrawal to drugs that blocked the action of opiates. Along the way, Narco was frequented by legendary jazz musicians such as Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins, as well as actor Peter Lorre and beat generation writer William S. Burroughs, who recounted his experience in his first novel, Junkie.

The documentary also chronicles how the Farm was shut down just as Congress discovered that researchers there were using patients as human guinea pigs in CIA-funded experiments into LSD. Drug research on federal prisoners is now illegal.

Still, the filmmakers note accomplishments at the institution remain milestones in addiction science and treatment. Its most important contribution might be how it transformed the way society views addicts—"as people suffering from a chronic, relapsing disorder that affects public health," says book co-author Nancy Campbell, an associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who studies the history of drug addiction research.

Correction (posted October 25, 2008): When originally posted, this story suggested that a Congressional investigation into the Narcotic Farm had led to its closure. In fact the main reason Narco was closed was that its centralized form of institutional care was supplanted by a national network of local treatment centers. Its closure coincided with the Congressional investigation into LSD research. Scientific American regrets the error.

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