Recovery at the Grassroots: Addicts, Alcoholics, and Communal Living in Postwar Los Angeles

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is Part 2 in a series on The Addict and Addiction Treatment Before the War on Drugs. 

In the early 1950s, just a few years after a group of patients at the federal narcotics prison-hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, started meeting under the guidance of a local Alcoholics Anonymous emissary, groups like Sun Valley’s Narcotics Anonymous sprung up all over the greater Los Angeles area. They went by all sorts of names: Habit Forming Drugs, Hypes and Alcoholics, Addicts Anonymous, or even the hyper-specific San Fernando Valley Alcoholics Anonymous and Addicts Anonymous. But they were bound by a shared genealogy, one in which the lessons of institutional treatment’s failure to effect a “cure” were merged with the communitarian tradition of alcoholic mutual aid networks in the mid-20th century. During the postwar years, while policymakers, law enforcement officials, and medical professionals debated whether the best way to treat addicts was compulsory hospitalization or providing them with drugs at state clinics, a movement of grassroots recovery groups—which would go on to revolutionize the system of addiction treatment in the United States—spread across Los Angeles.  Continue reading

“Typhoid Junkie”: Controversies over Contagion and Cure in the Mid-20th Century

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is Part 1 in a series on The Addict and Addiction Treatment Before the War on Drugs. The next installment will come in March.

It is common today to think about drug addiction as an illness or disorder, and the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis that deserves a robust medical response. This framework is often paired with an implicit (or not) rebuke of past ways of dealing with addiction as a sin or a crime, something to be shamed and punished. The fact of mass incarceration, which has filled jails with hundreds of thousands of drug offenders, predominantly of color, since the early 1970s, has rightfully precipitated a renewed emphasis on treating addicts as people in need of treatment, not prison time.

However, if one looks closely at the long history of medicalizing drug addiction in the United States, they might conclude that applying a treatment framework to addiction does not necessarily lead to clear-cut or even humane solutions. In fact, the mid-twentieth century architects and enforcers of narcotics control policy—with its street-level raids and mandatory sentences—also espoused a belief in addicts’ sickness and need for medical treatment. When public concern about drug addiction skyrocketed in the postwar years, the dilemma facing policymakers and medical professionals was what was to be done with the addict, given that she was sick. In this way, debates over addiction and rehabilitation were also clashes about the responsibilities of the state to its citizens and the limits of individual liberty. 

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