Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. She is working on a dissertation titled, “‘Dope Hope’: The Synanon Foundation, Grassroots Recovery Activism, and the Postwar Struggle over Addiction Rehabilitation, 1945-1980.”
Synanon ad poster plastered in New York City subway stations, 1960s
When my grandfather moved into Synanon in Santa Monica in 1968, the organization had already inspired a Hollywood film, a jazz LP, numerous bomb threats and eviction notices, and kudos from the Kennedy administration. In the decade after his arrival, Synanon founded a multi-million-dollar enterprise, registered as a religion, and made headlines for placing a live rattlesnake in the mailbox of a rival attorney, who nearly died from its bite. By 1978—the year of the Jonestown massacre and the first federal charges brought against Church of Scientology leaders—Synanon had cemented its place in the ranks of America’s numerous bizarre and violent cults.
Now, when my grandfather sat on a bench in Synanon’s Santa Monica clubhouse lobby, he didn’t know any of this. A few days earlier, his father had found him sitting in a street gutter in the Bronx, nodding off from recent heroin use. He asked his son if he would get on a plane to go to Synanon in California—the best place, everyone in their neighborhood said, for a heroin addict to get clean. So, my grandfather went. Before landing in Los Angeles, he shot up in the airplane bathroom with some supplies that he had smuggled onboard. After six years of heroin addiction, this would be the last time he ever used. He stayed in Synanon, along with his wife—my grandmother—and hundreds of others until its dissolution in 1990.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.
If you’ve followed the opioid issue, you might suspect, based on media reports and statements from policymakers, that we have turned over a new leaf in our attitudes toward drugs and are finally moving in the right direction: today we are “expanding treatment” and abandoning the former “punitive” morality play model. Elite discourse reinforces the perception that we have become more sophisticated, science-based and compassionate to users and those with substance use disorders.
That’s only partially true, but not because powerful institutional actors experienced a change of heart; they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into embracing, if only rhetorically, this new model. If anything, grassroots activists, harm reductionists, health workers and criminal justice advocates on the front lines have waged tireless, and at times seemingly thankless, campaigns to reform our draconian laws, and they have succeeded. (Prime examples of these successes include legalizing cannabis, decriminalizing psilocybin in Denver, and expunging criminal records for marijuana arrests in some states.) Activists also shifted the conversation away from the dehumanizing language used to describe people who use drugs among press and policymakers (“junkie,” “addict,” etc), a language that enabled us to conceive of other people as less than human, making it easy on our collective conscience to confine them to cages. Even now, further incremental baby steps are met with the same hostilities and recitations of the parade of horribles that would be unleashed as they used before.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from one of our newest contributing editors, Dr. Jeremy Milloy. Milloy is the W. P. Bell Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Allison University. A scholar of work, capitalism, addiction/substance use disorder, and violence, he began studying substance use and the workplace while researching his first book, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Violence at Work in the North American Auto Industry, 1960-80, published in 2017 by the University of Illinois Press. His current book project investigates the historical relationship between work, capitalism, substance use, and recovery in Canada and the United States, considering how wage labor has influenced substance use, anti-addiction efforts focused on work, the creation of employee assistance programs, workaholism, drug testing, and methadone programs. You can reach Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremymilloy) or by email (email@example.com). And you can look forward to reading more of his work on Points!
Among the historian’s most valuable contributions is the knowledge that many current phenomena that seem new have actually been around for quite awhile. So it is with the current opioid crisis, which many have pointed out is a continuation of, not a departure from, longstanding trends in substance use and dependence in North American life.
The automotive industry is a good example. Today, both the major North American automakers and the UAW have identified opioid-related harms as a significant threat to their workforce, membership, and communities. As journalist Jackie Charniga has shown, the U.S. areas dealing with the most severe opioid-related harms overlap with the areas of the Big Three’s major American manufacturing facilities. Ford and the UAW in 2017 started the Campaign of Hope, which aims to educate and inspire workers to avoid the misuse of drugs. The UAW is bargaining with the Big Three to make more help available for workers and make it easier to access that help while keeping their jobs. Unionists and Ford are even working together to pilot a medical device that could possibly relieve some of the agony of withdrawal.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Jill McCorkel, associate professor of sociology ad criminology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. In it, she explores the origins of how drug treatment and rehabilitation programs entered private prisons for women. Her full article appears in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!
Dr. Jill McCorkel
I was recently in a taxi on my way to a speaking engagement in Dublin, Ireland. When the driver asked me what I’d be discussing, I told him I research prison privatization. “Ahh, yes,” he said, “the corporations run the American prisons and that’s why you have such a problem over there. They want everyone in prison. More prisoners, more profit!”
Although legal scholars would likely challenge his claim on the grounds that comparatively few prisoners in the U.S. are held in private prisons, his comments are not entirely off base. Over the last 30 years, private companies have become increasingly influential players in the American prison system. The source of their ascendancy is not private prisons. Rather, it is in the provision of a vast array of services ranging from cafeteria food to phone cards, medical care to behavioral health programming. Private companies contract with local, state, and federal authorities to provide these services in publicly managed prisons, jails, and community-based correctional facilities. The contracts are a lucrative source of profit and require little in the way of oversight. The duration and scope of privatized correctional services vary, but among the most profitable are contracts that involve the provision of drug treatment programming to prisoners, parolees, and pretrial detentioners. Drug treatment and related rehabilitative services are a multi-billion dollar (USD) a year industry. In my article for the special issue of Contemporary Drug Problems, I explore the origins of privatized, prison-based drug treatment. I argue that during the War on Drugs, women’s prisons were utilized as testing grounds for private companies interested in getting into the expanding business of drug rehab.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a five-part series from Marcus Chatfield, a regular contributor to Points. Here he offers a timeline of key events and news articles in the history of Straight, Inc., the controversial adolescent drug treatment program that existed from 1976 to 1993. Thank you Marcus for bringing this series to Points!
November, 1980 – Opening Day,Sarasota facility.
1/4/1981 – Sarasota Herald-Tribune begins series on Straight, featuring Dr. Robert DuPont (White House Drug Policy Advisor for Presidents Nixon and Ford, and former Director of NIDA), and his sense of urgency about preventing marijuana use.
8/5/81 – Betty Sembler (wife of Straight’s founding president, Mel Sembler) letter to Carlton Turner (White House Drug Policy Advisor), confirming his future participation in the “Awareness Program” and inviting him for dinner with Dr. DuPont in Washington, D.C. (p. 1).
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a five-part series from Marcus Chatfield, a regular contributor to Points. Here he continues his examination of Straight, Inc., the controversial adolescent drug treatment program that existed from 1976 to 1993.
Carlton Turner visited (p. 7) the Saint Petersburg facility, two months after Andrew and Barbara Malcolm. He attended a Friday night “Open Meeting” on October 16, 1981 and soon after that visit, Straight’s National Director, James Hartz, asked Turner to write an endorsement letter for their Solicitation Presentation:
As you know from our telephone conversation, STRAIGHT, INC. is developing strategies for expanding our base in the search for funding. At the moment we are preparing an informative brochure to submit to those foundations, corporations, and individuals from whom we are requesting financial support. Enclosed is an outline illustrative of the type of information to be included. As soon as the brochure is completed, we will forward a copy to you. One of the most important facets of our presentation will be letters of support. We have already obtained permission from Dr. DuPont and Dr. Malcolm, who are forwarding their letters to us. The impact of a package such as ours is perceptibly enhanced by this type of verification. We are, of course, well-known in the areas in which we are located but a communication from you would substantially strengthen our credibility with those unfamiliar with our program and accomplishments (p. 15).
As the lawsuits and bad press accumulated during the years of expansion, this “perceptual enhancement” would become more and more important to Straight’s directors. As the ACLU was investigating the Atlanta program, within 6 months of its opening there, Robert DuPont (p. 1399) and Carlton Turner (p. 22) arranged for Nancy Reagan to visit the Saint Petersburg program, apparently in a show of solidarity. When Straight was (briefly) “cleared” of wrongdoing in Ohio and Georgia, James Hartz, wrote to Turner thanking him for his endorsement at the Florida fundraiser and “the efforts of your good offices in helping us over some rough spots during the past few months” (p. 24).
Nancy Reagan and Lady Diana visit a Straight facility in Springfield, Va.
That was just the beginning; as Straight expanded it was repeatedly sued – Vice President George Bush made a promotional visit in 1987 and a TV commercial for Straight. In 1988, As President-elect, he agreed to appear on a Straight Inc. fundraising telethon. As rumors about brainwashing spread, Nancy Reagan made highly publicized visits to Straight, one of them with Lady Diana. After multiple lawsuits and state investigations found evidence of widespread abuses, Ronald Reagan wrote a blurb for a Straight brochure.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part series from Marcus Chatfield, a regular contributor to Points. Here he continues his examination of Straight, Inc., the controversial adolescent drug treatment program that existed from 1976 to 1993.
Beginning in 1976, the original design of Straight’s milieu was a slightly modified version of The Seed Inc., a program whose methods were also compared to “brainwashing” in the Congressional report, Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification (1974). Specific details about the origins of the actual design of The Seed program are elusive; it was one of many programs initiated in the late 1960s that implemented an array of group methods attributed to those developed by adult members of the therapeutic community, Synanon, founded in 1957 for the treatment of heroin addiction.
But the controversy over “brainwashing” in adolescent reform programs is older than any of the programs that grew out of Synanon; it seems to have started in 1962, over concerns about the Provo Experiment in Delinquency Rehabilitation at the Pinehills Center in Utah County, Utah. According to authors LaMar Empey and Maynard Erickson in their book, The Provo Experiment(1972), in November, 1962, at least one county commissioner had voiced concerns about public funding for the program because it seemed similar to “communist brainwashing.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series from Marcus Chatfield, a regular contributor to Points. Here he continues his examination of Straight, Inc., the controversial adolescent drug treatment program that existed from 1976 to 1993.
There is no way to account for the discrepancies or misconceptions reflected in the Malcolms’ report. It’s possible that they were ill-informed and the group was given special instructions to behave differently during their visit. They may have had some vested interest in writing a favorable report, but the simplest explanation might come from Dr. Malcolm himself.
In his book, The Case Against the Drugged Mind(1973), he argues that society is in decline because of drugs and alcohol and he acknowledges his lack of composure concerning our future:
I am one student of the subject who does not contemplate the future of the chemophilic society with the same degree of composure as many of my colleagues do. In fact, as the reader will soon note, I am quite unable to appreciate the general rejoicing that seems to attend the observation that we have at last become restrained and civilized about drugs (from the preface).
He seems to have considered all of Western Civilization to be a chemophilic society unraveling because of its illicit cravings, like a compulsive drug user, bent towards self-destruction:
The chemophilic society tends to do the same thing: it compulsively swallows, inserts sniffs and injects its miraculous drugs. Finally this pattern, exactly as in the case of the alcoholic tends to become inappropriate. The many alternatives to intoxication are simply ignored (p. 4).
Like an intervention with a self-harming family member, because the disease is progressive and terminal, our society will need to be rescued – before we can be certain about the cure – we will have to take some risks in order to save humanity:
It is apparent, moreover, that as a consequence of this our society is suffering from progressively more serious psychological and physical distress. We are, in fact very likely at a point in time at which some crucial decisions must be made. And some of these decisions will have to be made without the benefit of all the facts. Our sickness is real enough and we are not likely to recover from it spontaneously (p. 4).
The report doesn’t give any information about Barbara Malcolm, B.A., but considering Dr. Malcolm’s areas of expertise and his convictions, he might have been the perfect person to explain Straight’s methods in a favorable light. But knowing the uniform consistency across the Straight franchise throughout its operation (along with the fact that the Malcolms’ research was conducted during the infamous “Miller Newton years” at Saint Petersburg), it’s difficult to understand how their conclusion – “Straight simply does not engage in brainwashing” – could have been so conclusive and so completely contrary to other expert assessments.
Dr. Barry Beyerstein and Dr. Bruce Alexander, also Canadian addictions experts, first heard about Straight from American University professor Dr. Arnold Trebach, who is probably the first academician to publish a behind-the-scenes account of the methods used in Straight’s facilities.
In his book The Great Drug War (1987), Trebach devoted an entire chapter to Straight, detailing the story of Fred Collins: his bizarre abduction, the methods of “brainwashing” he witnessed, and his successful lawsuit against the program. While writing about Collins’ experience, Dr. Trebach sent a preliminary draft to Professor Beyerstein, Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. Beyerstein responded by comparing Straight’s techniques to those of the Chinese Communists that were used upon United Nations prisoners of war during the Korean War. “The parallels with Straight’s methods are striking,” Beyerstein said.
The Chinese used techniques that Straight seems to have lifted wholesale. It seemed to me as I read your account that someone at Straight had read the literature on brainwashing and systematically set out to apply it (Trebach, 1987, p. 43).
In 1990, Dr. Beyerstein and his colleague Dr. Bruce Alexander were able visit Straight’s Springfield, Virginia facility, observing their methods first-hand. Later that same year, Alexander summed up his observations of Straight in his book, Peaceful Measures: “I believe that Straight’s treatment can be fairly compared with ‘brainwashing’ in prisoner-of-war camps as documented by Brown (1963, chap. 2)” (p. 75). Then he mentions that Straight’s executives had provided him with the Malcolms’ report (along with the Friedman study) as proof that their methods were effective.
In effect, our hosts at Straight Inc. argued not that their means were so very different from what critics had alleged, but that their noble ends (saving the nation’s children!) justified such harsh and underhanded manipulations. They excused their tactics on the grounds that the dangers of drugs, especially for youth, are so overwhelming that practices normally forbidden in democracies must be permitted in the all-out battle for survival (p. 246).
In 1992, Dr. Beyerstein published a lengthy analysis comparing Straight’s methods to “brainwashing,” referring to the work of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, Dr. Edgar Schein and cult expert, Dr. Susan Andersen. (The Malcolms referred to their own expertise and to Dr. Malcolm’s own personal criteria, found in The Tyranny of the Group, for their assessment.)
Check back next week for Part 3. Chatfield’s series will run every Thursday.