America's First Drug-Treatment Prison Revisited The Narcotic Farm was one of America's most ambitious drug-treatment institutions. It was located in Lexington, Ky., and housed addicts from the famous, like writer William S. Burroughs, to the forgotten. Documentarian JP Olsen and drug policy expert Nancy Campbell collaborated on a new book and a PBS documentary titled The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America's First Prison for Drug Addicts. They talk about the institution.
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America's First Drug-Treatment Prison Revisited

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America's First Drug-Treatment Prison Revisited

America's First Drug-Treatment Prison Revisited

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To a different chapter in American history now, the history of drug treatment. In 1935, the federal government opened its very first drug-treatment center in Lexington, Kentucky. It was called the U.S. Narcotic Farm. Hundreds of addicts went there. Some were sent as prisoners. Others went voluntarily to seek treatment.

Unidentified Man: This scene shows a subject at the beginning of the study experiencing the acute effects of morphine.

SEABROOK: The Narcotic Farm was in many ways a groundbreaking facility, but it also used questionable treatments and even experimented on inmates. JP Olsen and Nancy Campbell are two of the collaborators on a new book and a PBS documentary called "The Narcotic Farm." JP Olsen says there was a reason the government built the farm in the rolling Kentucky hills.

Mr. JP OLSEN (Filmmaker, Author, "The Narcotic Farm"): The idea was that you would take people who had been addicted to drugs out into this largely beautiful environment and put them to work on a farm underneath the sun, give them good food. And then, this - in a sense, this total institution, if you will, would help solve their problem, and they could return to the society productive citizens.

SEABROOK: Now, let me turn to you, Nancy Campbell. This is the first time that people started to treat addicts as people who were sick rather than people who were criminals.

Dr. NANCY CAMPBELL (Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): Exactly. The place - many people who worked at the place really thought of it as a hospital, as a drug-treatment facility. And the main product that they thought they were delivering was rehabilitation.

SEABROOK: Before we get to the actual experiments that went on, the scientific research, the Narcotic Farm was known around the country as a Mecca of jazz because narcotics, especially heroin, was so wrapped up in the jazz scene. People - some of the musicians that came through there, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Howard McGhee, these people were playing in bands at the Narcotic Farm. JP Olsen.

Mr. OLSEN: Yes. Harry Anslinger, who's the famous, and to many people, notorious, head of narcotic control in the 1940s and '50s, he remarked once that the best jazz band in the world is in Lexington. And many people that I spoke with who were musicians of that time, the '40s and the '50s, tell me that it wasn't just dozens of great jazz musicians but literally hundreds of great jazz musicians. So, you know, it was a pretty open place in that way.

I mean, they were encouraging people to play jazz music four, five, six hours a day because that was part of getting better. It was to focus on something that you really love to do. And they had, you know, they had great, great musicians within that institution.

SEABROOK: Let's turn to some of the research. There was a special wing of the Narcotic Farm called The Addiction Research Center. This is where patients volunteered to participate in drug studies. Nancy Campbell, give me some examples of the tests that researchers were doing on the patients.

Dr. CAMPBELL: Well, what they would do would that - they would take what they called post-addicts, and these were former and often quite recently detoxified heroin addicts or opiate addicts, and they would basically re-addict them to an opiate, to morphine, generally. And then, they would begin to withdraw them. They would then administer the new unknown drug to see whether that arrested the signs of withdrawal.

So for instance, they tested methadone when it was first brought to this country, and they had found out that methadone administered to a former heroin addict is going to arrest the symptoms of withdrawal. They also found out that methadone was well liked by their subjects. Their subjects would say, hey, could we get some of that on the outside? And so, they began to think, well, people are going to get high from this drug. So we don't want to see this drug get put on the market because we think it will cause an addiction problem.

And so, what was basically happening at the Narcotic Farm, the scientists there really saw themselves as protectors of the public health. They did not want to see another heroin go on the market. Heroin, when it went on the market in 1898, was marketed as non-addictive. And so, they did not want there to be another drug that went on the market that would cause a public health problem.

SEABROOK: Well, let's talk for a second then about how the volunteers were compensated for being subjects of these drug trials. They were given drugs.

Dr. CAMPBELL: Exactly. They earned and banked their drug of choice.

SEABROOK: They earned milligrams of morphine?

Dr. CAMPBELL: Yes. They could bank the drug, and then they could apparently use it at a time when, perhaps it was a holiday or their birthdays or there were some celebratory reason for them to use it. But...

SEABROOK: To go get high?

Dr. CAMPBELL: Right. So my understanding now is that that was actually not a very common practice.

Mr. OLSEN: But it was - but there's no question it was a practice. I mean, I spoke to a number of people, and it was an open secret that, at the end of the time of your research, you could get your drug of choice. And, you know, we can see today, it seems like a terrible thing to do. But I think, at the time, there wasn't a whole lot of debate about it.

SEABROOK: It's so interesting to hear both of you who have looked carefully at this place. It sounds like you're pretty sympathetic to the practices that went on there, and I wonder why.

Dr. CAMPBELL: I think it's because this is really the first time that you see people, and the researchers in particular, who were very compassionate towards addicts. The ultimate goal was to understand the underlying mechanisms of addiction well enough that you could cure it, or at least prevent it.

Mr. OLSEN: And, Andrea, I have a quick thing that I could add, if you have a second.


Mr. OLSEN: To look at the Narcotic Farm, in a sense, is to fall through the looking glass because it was an institution where something that's seemingly negative or cruel is in fact not necessarily what it seems at first. And something that seems benevolent, in fact, could be, in its own way, a kind of abuse. And so, what you had for 40 years was an institution that was dedicated to this one thing, and it didn't necessarily show the successes that had been hoped for when it was opened. But the point is, for that period of time, an enormous amount of learning was made, and enormous risks were taken.

SEABROOK: Ultimately, if you had to gauge success, the Narcotic Farm's inmates or patients, 90 percent of them went back to drug abuse.

Ms. OLSEN: For what it was started to do, it failed. And what came out of it was a lot of valuable learning.

SEABROOK: JP Olsen and Nancy Campbell are two of the collaborators on "The Narcotic Farm." JP Olsen is a filmmaker, and Nancy Campbell is a professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Thanks to both of you.

Mr. OLSEN: Thank you.

Dr. CAMPBELL: Thank you.

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