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
Credits: Arthur Rothstein
PSYCHEDELIC SELLOUT: The revelations that ultimately tainted Narco's reputation involved the CIA and LSD. For years, the Addiction Research Center secretly accepted millions of dollars from the CIA as part of a covert program known as MK-ULTRA. The agency had funded LSD research due to interest in the hallucinogenic drug as an interrogation and mind-control tool.
However, the main reason Narco was closed was that its centralized form of institutional care was supplanted by a national network of local treatment centers. The complex that formerly housed the United States Narcotic Farm is now a medical center that provides health care to federal prisoners with chronic physical illnesses.
Correction (posted October 25, 2008): When originally posted, this story suggested that a Congressional investigation into the Narcotics 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. Arthur Rothstein
GROWING RECOVERY: Patients here work in the spring kale harvest. They also milked cows, harvested corn, beans and tomatoes as well as butchered pigs. The hope was that the newfound work ethic patients developed during farm labor would help sustain abstinence from drugs.
WHOLESOME LIVING: The Narcotic Farm was set on 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of farmland. To the right of the photo are barns and silos. As the book notes: at Narco's peak, its award-winning dairy herd numbered more than 90 cows. Central courtyards were outfitted with tennis courts, and the larger rear courtyards were equipped with softball fields--such work and recreation was promoted as therapeutic.
Office of the Public Health Service Historian
CAPTIVE TALENT: The original caption for this photo, which appeared in a 1951
New York World-Telegram & Sun, read: "The brighter side of Narco--a jam session by patients who formed their own orchestra." Drugs sent many jazz musicians to the Narcotic Farm, who often performed for fellow inmates, staff and residents of nearby Lexington, Ky.
In the book, former patient Stan Novick recalls: "You could go to a show and see some of the great, great jazz musicians of our time. They became legends. But at the time they were just more drug addicts." Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection Advertisement
HOOKED ON AESTHETICS: The central interior tower of the Narcotic Farm, built in an Art Deco style, was designed to stand as a "temple" of rehabilitation.
Lexington Narcotics Farm Collection
REVOLVING DOOR: The original caption for this photo, which appeared in a 1951
New York World-Telegram & Sun series on the Narcotic Farm, read: "This desperate narcotics addict, caught like his fellows in the revolving door of law enforcement, will probably go back to his habit when he is free."
As the book notes, one of the most important contributions Narco to our knowledge of drugs was the view of 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 scientific research on drug addiction. Researchers there also shed light on how environmental cues could trigger relapse. Robert E. Stigers
HABITUAL INNOVATION: A picture of syringes confiscated during an admission. Note the one on the right disguised as a fountain pen. As the book notes, arriving volunteers often carried drug paraphernalia.
THE GREAT EQUALIZER: Although two thirds of Narco's population consisted of convicts arrested for drugs, the other third were volunteers who checked themselves in for treatment. Volunteers could leave at any time, whereas inmates could not--but all patients wore the same clothes, worked the same jobs, ate the same food (according to the book, author William S. Burroughs said it was excellent) and lived together behind bars.
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DRUG HEADS: The apparatus in the middle of the picture was designed to test the mental reactions of those under the influence of morphine. For instance, the experimenter read certain words at the patient to see how fast they responded by pushing a button that turned on the lights. According to the book, the way cells react to opiates such as a heroin and morphine were discovered at the Addiction Research Center.
DRUG EXPERIMENTATION: The Darrow photopolygraph measured a patient's mental and physical reaction to slang references to drugs. In this test a researcher in an adjoining room shows the addict words such as "dope" and "informer". The patient's facial reactions, pulse, blood pressure, breathing and galvanic skin response (a change in the skin's electrical conductivity due to stress) were monitored. Doctors listened to the patients' verbal responses via the microphone.
Such experiments were part of early attempts to understand the psychological factors in drug addiction and relapse. According to the book, they were often conducted on inmates under the influence of narcotics. Arthur Rothstein
HIGHS AND LOWS: A laboratory inside the Narcotic Farm. The Addiction Research Center at Narco was devoted to answering some of the most fundamental questions about addiction, such as what accounted for high rates of relapse or why some drug users became addicted whereas others did not.
Controversially, Narco tested the effects and addiction potential of new drugs on humans. Over the four decades of Narco's existence, patients volunteered for experiments involving every abused drug known, including heroin, morphine, cocaine, alcohol, barbiturates, marijuana, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. Arthur Rothstein
REHABILITATION NATION: Tens of thousands of men and women were sent to the United States Narcotic Farm for rehabilitation over the course of 40 years from every walk of life--from ministers and doctors to hustlers and farmers.
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