Addiction science and the Narcotic Farm

At Scientific American’s website there is a nice short article and slide-show profiling a new documentary and accompanying book about Lexington, Kentucky’s Narcotic Farm—a federal prison and treatment center to which most people arrested for drugs were apparently sent between 1935 and 1975. The documentary, The Narcotic Farm, will be shown on public television stations in the US in November, and the book is already available. The Narcotic Farm played a particularly important role in the history of drugs and their management in the US because, in addition to treating and punishing addicts, it was the site for some of the key experiments and research studies in addiction science.

Given this, it is especially appropriate that the text for the new book is co-written by Nancy Campbell, a science and technology studies scholar at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who has carried out extensive research on the history of drug addiction science in the US. I highly recommend her Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research to anyone interested in understanding how our contemporary biomedical ideas about addiction came to be. I should add that Campbell co-wrote the book with JP Olsen and Luke Walden, both of whom also produced and directed the documentary.

Perhaps the most well known account of the Narcotics Farm comes from William Burroughs’s novel Junky. Here’s a short excerpt:

About fifteen minutes later the attendant called, “Shot line!” Everyone in the ward lined up. As our names were called, we put an arm through a window in the door of the ward dispensary, and the attendant gave the shots. Sick as I was, the shot fixed me. Right away, I began to get hungry.

I walked up to the middle of the ward, where there were benches, chairs and a radio, and got in conversation with a thuggish-looking young Italian. He asked me if I had much of a record. I said no.

“You ought to be up with the Do-Rights,” he said. “You get a longer cure there and better rooms.”

The Do-Rights were people in Lexington for the first time, who were considered to be especially good prospects for a permanent cure. Evidently, the doctors in Reception didn’t think too much of my prospects. (p.51, 50th anniversary edition)

7 replies on “Addiction science and the Narcotic Farm”

Eugene (and all), I was literally just about to post on the same topic and Scientific American article.

The NF (where an uncle of mine, who eventually died of a heroin OD spent some time) is now Federal Medical Center Lexington. The FMCs are categorized as “administrative” facilities for their special medical missions. In the case of Lexington, primarily male inmates with serious and chronic illnesses are detained/treated there. With high hopes of future local research, I wonder whether there is a contemporary “Do-Right” population, and what its contours and social relations might consist of.

Of course, I’d forgotten that this is now in your backyard. Sorry for preempting your post!

That’s very interesting about the contemporary incarnation of the NF. What kinds of serious illnesses are treated there — cancer, AIDS, etc?

That was great, thanks for sharing. I am not sure what conditions are treated at FMC Lex these days. (Pushed to the back burner by Georgia and new post-war project).

The FMC in Lexington is physically the same institution as the Narcotic Farm, but otherwise they are entirely independent entities. The NF was a kind of collaboration between the federal prison system and NIH. NIH’s Addiction Research Center was housed there. The effort to combine therapy and research on therapy with law enforcement is what makes it so interesting. That entity was shut down in the 70s; the ARC moved to Baltimore. What’s left in Lexington is just a prison, as far as I know. I’d be surprised if there were anything to be learned by comparing the old and new regimes, or by looking for any of the features of the old one (e.g. the the “Do-Right” population) in the new one.

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