All posts by Shreeja Patel

Reaching Enlightenment: Psychedelic American Buddhism

Hope Chang

When asked to imagine a “hippie”, what comes to mind? For many, it may look something like the following:

The 1960s, hallucinogenic prints, long hair, mind altering substances, and a “make love not war” mentality. However, what may be not as visibly stereotypically a part of the counterculture’s is its association with Eastern religion – Buddhism, particularly.

During the 1960s, psychedelic experiences led figures such as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert to explore Eastern Buddhist practices and to eventually publish a book on the matter entitled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. During this time, many other psychedelic users were also drawn to Buddhism and its practices after their mind-bending experiences – the rise of interest in yoga, meditation, and Eastern religions in the 60’s and 70’s was closely tied to the rise of a counter cultural interest in psychedelics. In 1967, one anonymous Harvard East Asian expert went so far as to compare Buddhist monasticism and the “hippie movement”, claiming to have foreseen the movement in a book on Eastern religion written a ten-years beforehand (The Harvard Crimson, 1967).  However, in the following decades of the late 70’s and 80’s, many Buddhists distanced themselves from the antiestablishment counterculture that they had previously subscribed to, anxious to rid their reputation of the 60’s drug. Given that Buddhism’s fifth precept demands abstinence from all intoxicants, a large proportion claim to have left these drugs behind to subscribe to the more traditional, original practice – However, a newer generation of American Buddhist converts continue to combine their meditations with psychedelics, giving rise to a uniquely Americanized (and oftentimes, substance-involving) version of the religion.

For my final blog project, I intend to explore the relationship between psychedelics and American Buddhism. More specifically, I want to see how such a traditionally substance-rejecting Eastern religion became so associated with mind-altering substances in the U.S. – What caused this mingling and what are its implications? What would American Buddhists to leave behind the substances which lead them to their religion in the first place? 

The origins of the connection between Buddhism and psychedelics can be traced to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (Osto, 2019). The youth of this decade began to reject characteristic American conservatism, consumerism, materialism, and conformism, and as Mélisa Kidari, author of The Counterculture of the 1960s in the United States: An “Alternative Consciousness”?  writes, “they looked for a bigger horizon. What is bigger than the Universe? The Buddha taught connection with the universe”(Kidari, 2012). Ultimately, Kidari argues that it is only logical why the counterculture would be so attracted to tenants of Eastern philosophies – Feeling stifled by traditional expectations and limitations, turning inwards to search for spiritual enlightenment seemed like a direct rebellion of the norm and perhaps an avenue for peace to replace their social anxieties. However, in many sects of Buddhism, a practitioner primarily achieves enlightenment via rigorous meditation and asceticism – things that required a discipline that contradicted the counterculture’s rejection of authority (Kidari, 2012). However, some early experimenters of psychoactive substances proposed with the aid of such drugs like LSD, one could reach a similar enlightenment with the additional advantages of having to waste no time and no effort and abide by no discipline. Here, we begin to see why an overlap began to build between psychedelics and Buddhist philosophies.

 Through a number of major publications and studies, the 60s were witness to the birth of a major psychedelic movement. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – both American psychologists now famous for being early advocates for the therapeutic uses of psychoactive substances – began the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960 to investigate possible benefits of psychedelics by recruiting various graduate students and faculty members in the Boston area and giving them psilocybin mushrooms. On Good Friday in 1962, one of the project’s most well-known experiments was conducted under the supervision of Leary: The Marsh Chapel Experiment of 1962 (also appropriately referred to as the Good Friday Experiment). Walter Pahnke – a medical doctor, a Protestant minister, and one of Leary’s graduate students – conducted the study in Marsh Chapel at Boston University as part of his Religion and Society PhD dissertation, specifically to investigate if psychoactive substances could induce mystical experiences. Even in its early days, psychedelics seemed to almost immediately tied to religion and spirituality.

Shortly after the experiment was conducted, Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard and began to co-author their own book entitled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964) with Ralph Metzner. As the title indicates, the authors were clearly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or more formerly Bardo Thodol,from which the authors were inspired is a Tibetan guidebook which is meant to be read to the recently deceased to help guide their consciousness through the various bardo states before their rebirth into the next life. In several schools of Buddhism, the bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth and is primarily comprised of three stages – “bardo of the moment of death”, “bardo of the experiencing of reality”, and “bardo of rebirth”.  After Metzner, Leary, and Alpert had several experiences on various psychoactive substances, they equated their altered states to one of the bardo states they had read about in The Tibetan Book of the Dead – the Clear Light state found in the “bardo of the moment of death”. Thus, in The Psychedelic Experience, the clear light altered state became the primary goal and purpose of using psychedelic substances and became synonymous with Buddhist enlightenment. At the time of its publication, readers most likely knew little about Buddhism or psychoactive substances, and consequently the trio of authors soon became the major narrators of their popular perceptions in the U.S (Osto, 2019). It was this point in my research that I began to wonder what implications this could have for both users of psychoactive substances and the demographics of American converts to Buddhism. Hypothetically, if Metzner, Leary, and Alpert had not been a main introducer of Buddhism and psychedelics to U.S. populations, would psychoactive substances still be considered as spiritual as they are today? 

In addition to creating a guidebook for future users of psychoactive substances, Metzner, Leary, and Alpert also had another major objective in mind – the unification of science and religion through psychedelics. They write, “Modern psychedelic chemicals provide a key to this forgotten realm of awareness…. Now for the first time, we possess the means of providing enlightenment to any prepared volunteer…. For these reasons we have prepared this psychedelic version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The secret is released once again, in a new dialect, and we sit back quietly to observe whether man is ready to move ahead and to make use of the new tools provided by modern science”(Leary & Metzner & Alpert, 1969). Interestingly, the authors incorporate science as an additional motivation to utilize and link psychedelics to and in Eastern philosophies. One of the trio’s contemporaries, Alan Watts – an influential convert to Buddhism and popularizer of East Asian religions during the early 1960s –, was a self-proclaimed student of the psychology of religion. Similar to Leary and Alpert’s dismissal from Harvard, Watts encountered governmental and societal pressures to no longer pursue research in the field of psychoactive substances. In response, he argued that the mystical experiences induced by such substances were similar enough to the “tradition of genuine religious involvement” (Watts, 1968) that users should be entitled to at least some form of constitutional protection. He writes:

“This is a barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom, suggesting that the legal system of the United States is, after all, in tacit alliance with the monarchical theory of the universe and will, therefore, prohibit and persecute religious ideas and practices based on an organic and unitary vision of the universe” (Watts, 1968)

After reading the above sentiments, my mind immediately circled back to a book I read for a Buddhism course I took last semester. In Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (2012), the 14th Dalai Lama also interestingly calls for a necessary unification of religion and Western science (H.H. Dalai Lama, 2012). He of course does not call for the use of psychedelics as the bridge between the two as Metzner, Leary, and Alpert do, but the similarity in calling to bridge religion and science in Beyond Religion and The Psychedelic Experience demonstrates that perhaps there exists a significant population which craves some intermediary between the two – a craving that has possibly existed for decades and perhaps also played a role in why Buddhism and psychoactive substances have seemingly arisen so concurrently in the U.S.

Metzner, Leary, and Alpert may have been major perpetuators of the American link between Buddhism and psychedelics, but how did the authors become interested in this marriage in the first place? To provide further context for the link between the rise of American Buddhism, it is helpful to understand one of the main inspirations behind The Psychedelic Experience, another book published two years prior in 1962 entitled The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness written by the aforementioned Alan Watts. In its foreword, Leary and Alpert write, “We have had to return again and again to the non-dualistic conceptions of Eastern philosophy, a theory of mind made more explicit and familiar in our Western world by Berson, Alduous Huxley, and Alan Watts” (Leary & Alpert, 1962). Here, Leary and Alpert explicitly acknowledge Watt’s ability to write about Asian religions, giving further evidence to the association between Buddhism and psychoactive substances. In the book, Watts postulates that direct experience is the “purview of religion”, and so he aims to connect science and religion via experiences on psychedelic drugs. Throughout his writing, he appropriates from Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu lines of thought and aligns them with his own substance-induced hypotheses about the true nature of reality, ultimately concluding that psychedelics may be the form of “medicine” needed by humans to rid themselves of their false sense of separateness. He writes:

“Such aids to perception are medicines, not diets, and as the use of a medicine should lead to a more healthful mode of living, so the experiences which I have described suggest measures we might take to maintain a sounder form of sanity. Of these the most important is the practice of what I would like to call meditation – were it not that this word often connotates spiritual or mental gymnastics” (Watts, 1962)

Watts also repeatedly refers to the Buddhist notion of “void” in relation to his words on meditation, ultimately making the association to Buddhism explicit.  In Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America (2016), Osto analyzes that throughout his various works, Watts demonstrates a common narrative found in “psychedelic Buddhist” literature which hails that using psychedelics is not only a way to find spirituality by themselves but can also be supplementary with Buddhist practices (Osto, 2019)

At this point, I hope to have made the connection between psychedelics and Buddhism clear: The popularizers of psychoactive substances were often also the popularizers of Eastern religions, and a shared ideal of achieving some sort of higher consciousness and peace in place of pursuing traditional American expectations allowed for a logical relationship between substance and religion. However, although this overlap was acclaimed by some, it was also heavily criticized and resisted by others. In another Alan Watts publication Psychedelics and Religious Experience (1968),he argues that the notion of “mystical experiences” resulting from drug use is not generally well-accepted by Western societies and blames the culture’s enthrallment with placing value on a person depending on their ability to be a self-determining, responsible, and controlled individual through their own sheer effort and will. Ultimately, he believes that the notion of spiritual or psychological growth through the use of drugs directly contradicts and is even repugnant to the surrounding American cultural tradition. Thus, Watts postulates that resistance to allowing the use of psychoactive substances does not only originate in secular values, but in religious ones as well.

Since the 1960s, the association between Buddhism and psychedelics has remained present. In one 1996 edition of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a poll from 1,454 readers found:

  • 89% engaged in Buddhist practice
  • 83% stated they had taken psychedelics
  • >40% said their interest in Buddhism was sparked by psychedelics
  • 71% believe that “psychedelics are not a path, but they can provide a glimpse of the reality to which Buddhist practice points”(Tricycle, 1996)

Given that according to government surveys only 8% of the U.S. population have experimented with psychedelic drugs (Osto, 2019), it seems Buddhists are more likely to have had experimented with psychoactive substances than non-Buddhists. However, it is pertinent to point out here that those who partake in “psychedelic Buddhism” are predominantly white, middle- or upper-class, college educated, politically liberal converts to the religion (Osto, 2019). Although Asian American Buddhists seem to be much less interested in using psychedelics, given the scope and topic of this post, I was not able to satisfactorily investigate nor speak to how Asian American Buddhists felt about usages of substances. However, I felt it was important to acknowledge race is a touchy but important subject in discussions surrounding American Buddhism. Here is a link to an article that can speak more in depth on the issue: Putting that aside, Tricycle makes it clearthat the relationship between Buddhism and psychedelics did not die with the counterculture of the 1960s. When asked, “How important was LSD for the importation of Eastern spiritual practices into the U.S. during the sixties?”, one interviewee responded:

“I took LSD and other psychedelics at Dartmouth after I started studying Eastern religions. They came hand in hand, as they did for many people. In fact, the majority of Western Buddhist teachers used psychedelics at the start of their practice. A number still do on occasion”

Some even went so far as to claim:

“‘How can you be a serious Buddhist if you’re not exploring psychedelics?’ Then you’re sort of an arm-chair Buddhist, a Buddhist from theory, a Buddhist from practice, but it is sort of training wheels practice”

A tension currently exists between a more traditional and conservative rejection of psychedelics and a more permissive attitude (Badiner & Gray, 2002). A common narrative trope among boomer-generation American Buddhists found by Davis in Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism on Psychedelics (2002) is that “Yes, that is what we did back in the sixties, but then we got serious about our Buddhist practice and it stopped”. Ultimately, there seems to be a great amount of diversity and at times conflict among American Buddhists on what the role of psychoactive substances can or should play in their religion.


Badiner, A. H., & Gray, A. (2002). Zig zag zen: Buddhism on psychedelics. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.

Buddhism & Psychedelics. (1996). Tricycle: The Buddhist Review6(1). Retrieved from

Hippies and Buddhists Compared by Scholar: News: The Harvard Crimson. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Huxley, A. (1954). The doors of perception. London: Chatto and Windus.

Kidari, M. (2012). The Counterculture of the 1960s in the United States: An “Alternative Consciousness”? . HAL. Retrieved from

Leary, T., Metzner, R., & Dass, R. (1969). The psychedelic experience: a manual based on the Tibetan book of the dead. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

Osto, D. (2019). Altered states: Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Queen, C., & Williams, D. R. (2013). American Buddhism Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. London: Taylor and Francis.

Watts, A., Leary, T. F., & Dass, R. (1962). The joyous cosmology: adventures in the chemistry of consciousmess. New York: Vintage Books.

Watts, A. (1968). Psychedelics and Religious Experience. California Law Review56(1), 74. doi: 10.2307/3479497

Suburban Whites and The War on Drugs

The contemporary “War on Drugs” dates back to attitudes developed in the 1950s and is reflected today in alarming statistics that place African Americans in the United states as 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. In Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs by Matthew D. Lassiter tracks the evolution of the victimization of the white middle-class through different movements that brought suburban drug use into the national consciousness and resulted in efforts to demonize minority populations perceived to be responsible. In Grass Roots, Emily Dufton discusses the rise of the grassroots parent movement during the Carter administration, its subsequent invigoration during the Raegan administration and its success in lobbying against the decriminalization of marijuana by refocusing the conversation about marijuana on suburban youth. Both sources shed light on how conversations about the criminalization of drugs in America reflect underlying efforts to preserve the social dominance of affluent whites.

In Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs, Matthew D. Lassiter describes the national outrage in response to reports of heroin usage amongst the teenage children of white suburban elite. He opens with the case of the Dallas suburb of Plano, in which 14 high schoolers died in the late 20th century from heroin overdoses. Lassiter effectively sets the stage for his argument when he explains the consequences of these horrifying deaths: of the 29 individuals found responsible, the 16 local white teenagers received probation and minimal jail time while a handful of Mexican’s were given mandatory-minimum sentences of 20 years to life. He goes on to identify how, since the 1950s, the war on drugs has been constructed through the framework of a suburban crisis in which middle-class youth have been portrayed as victims.

Lassiter’s evidence is multimodal, ranging from primary sources like articles from national publications and press releases to secondary sources like scholarly journal articles that also comment on the phenomenon of white middle-class youth being victims of drugs pushed by minority drug “kingpins.” He discusses how as marijuana use spiked amongst college-aged whites, a population deemed valuable because of their membership in the dominant social group, there were calls to repeal the laws that made it felony to possess marijuana. Loopholes were introduced that would protect those caught for first time offenses, while simultaneously mandatory-minimum sentences were made increasingly harsher for—typically minority—drug-pushers. In other words, when the criminals did not fit a racialized image of the stereotypical drug user, the government doubled back on its attempts to criminalize all marijuana users. Not only did these “impossible criminals” not fit the bill, but they also had futures worthy of protection because in all other realms they were as far from criminal as possible.

Lassiter concludes his article by discussing how the Raegan administration’s alliance with the suburban parent movement served to fortify the aims of the war on drugs. In Grass Roots, Dufton echoes this in a narrative format that folds in information chronologically. First in “Atlanta, 1976,” she details how the parent movement was started by parent activist Keith Schuchard in an affluent Atlanta suburb, Emory University’s own neighborhood of Druid Hills. Dufton mentions how the parent movement took up the cause of publicly criticizing the increasing availability of marijuana paraphernalia seemingly targeted at kids. Later in “The Coming Parent Movement” and “The Most Potent Force There Is,” she describes how the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth (NFP) gains credibility as it makes its way to Washington on the back of the Raegan administration. Throughout these chapters, Dufton is able to capture the urgency of the NFP in their quest to protect their affluent, suburban communities. Additionally, she comments on the political implications of the alliance between the NFP and the Raegan administration. However, after reading Lassiter’s piece I was struck by how little Dufton does in these chapters to clarify who is disadvantaged by the efforts of the NFP. Lassiter clearly identifies that parent movement’s success in enacting actual policy change is not only tied to their powerful political allies but also a result of the ease with which they could displace blame onto urban minority populations. The Grass Roots chapters read like an ode to the work done by Schuchard and her contemporaries to bring the parent movement to the mainstream. However, Dufton’s failure to acknowledge the intersectional aspects of the NFP’s rise makes her narrative fall flat. It left me asking questions about whether the whiteness of the NFP gave it inherent credibility that contributed to its influence.

Ultimately, both sources offered informative perspectives on changing attitudes in federal drug policy from the 1950-70s. Grass Roots does not convey the entire picture as it leaves out significant racially driven contributions to the parent movement’s success, making Impossible Criminals a more thorough source on the topic.

Ethical Implications of Understanding Addiction: Lexington Narcotic Farm and the Addiction Research Center

By Shreeja Patel

In response to a rise in domestic narcotic consumption during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the federal government passed comprehensive legislation seeking to regulate and tax the introduction of narcotics.[i] The 1930s ushered in a new wave of solutions to the domestic drug crisis that combined the resources and approaches of numerous organizations with overlapping motivations for mitigating national opiate addiction. Construction of the Lexington Narcotic Farm, later commonly referred to as Narco by its nearly 30,000 inmates, was one such solution. Narco opened its doors in 1935 on 12-acres of land in rural Kentucky, promising to rehabilitate the nation’s growing number of addicts by giving them access to the therapeutic potential of medicine, spirituality and labor.[ii] However, within Narco, an Addiction Research Center (ARC) staffed by the National Research Council was simultaneously investigating both the science behind addiction and potential permanent cures through experimentation on prisoners housed there. These experiments involved unethical treatment of prisoners, as researchers preyed on the vulnerability of ex-addicts and abused their bodies in the name of science. Despite the ineffectiveness of the Lexington Narcotic Farm in mitigating the problem of high relapse rates amongst its prisoners, unethical research practices were permitted to continue in the ARC into the late 1970s because of the numerous institutional actors that reaped knowledge from the exploitation of criminalized addicts.  


A mid-1920s investigation of federal prisons by the Bureau of Efficiency of the Department of Justice revealed that prisoners who had been addicted to opiates lacked appropriate medical attention when incarcerated. In his report, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, James V. Bennet, called for the establishment of two “narcotic farms,” or prisons solely dedicated to treating these prisoners separate from the rest.[iii] Congress debated Bennet’s proposal and ultimately passed the Porter Act of 1929, which authorized the construction of two Public Health Service Narcotic Hospitals.[iv] The Narcotic Farm erected in Lexington, Kentucky was the first of its kind and its rural location and arable land were of utmost importance as they ensured both that prisoners would be isolated from the temptations of urban life and that they could enjoy the catharsis of working its soil. In The Narcotic Farm, historian Nancy Campbell describes how Narco’s structure reflected its dual nature as both a prison and a hospital: “The institution’s size, towering walls, and barred windows powerfully communicated its mission of incarceration…Despite the institution’s overbearing scale, therapeutic ideals were central to its design, which included a spacious chapel and a complex grid of courtyards allowing for light and ventilation throughout the institution”.[v]

“Exterior of Lexington Narcotic Farm” University of Kentucky Archives Date: 1935-05-25
“Exterior of Lexington Narcotic Farm” University of Kentucky Archives Date: 1935-05-25

Narco housed what would later be called the Addiction Research Center (ARC), laboratories where researchers hoped to learn more about the underlying mechanisms of addiction and potentially discover a cure. Dr. Clifton K. Himmselbach, the first director of the ARC, was a prominent addiction researcher of the time whose work with rats helped him to determine a research principle which became the basis for much of the experimentation done by the ARC: “A substance that will support and maintain the ‘addicted state’ is essentially addicted in itself.”[vi] Himmelsbach’s “addicted state” refers to a new homeostatic equilibrium that a user’s body establishes in response to even small quantities of an addictive substance.[vii] Under his supervision, the ARC aimed to better understand the underlying mechanisms of addiction and assess the addictive potential of novel synthetic analgesics by performing tests on the captive population of highly experienced and knowledgeable ex-addicts  housed at Narco. Researchers justified this testing because they felt that this patient population patients could best understand the risks associated with participating in drug testing trials.[viii] Prior efforts taken to discover therapeutic alternatives to Cocaine successfully eliminated all medical uses of the drug and led to the subsequent decline in national coca leaf importation. Motivated by this success, researchers at Narco’s ARC sought to investigate the neurophysiological underpinnings of narcotic addiction and discover potential alternatives.[ix]

Characterization of the ARC Research

The ARC is credited with establishing numerous “milestones” in addiction science and treatment such as identifying neurological opiate receptors and challenging accepted stereotypes about addicts.[x] In Addiction Research Center: Pioneers Still on the Frontier, John Walsh adds that: “The contributions of the Lexington researchers have ranged across applied and basic research. Standard withdrawal techniques for morphine and heroin and later for methadone, barbiturates and alcohol were developed there. The scientific characterization of the morphine abstinence syndrome and tests for opiate dependence came out of the center.”[xi]

However, the conflation of prisoners with patients gave rise to conditions that were inherently coercive and demonstrated gross violations of the ethics of human subject research. For one, the “consent forms” that patients were made to fill out prior to participating in ARC experiments read more like a release to protect the laboratory and its researchers from potential lawsuits.[xii] Furthermore, though all participants were volunteers with the freedom to withdraw from the program at any time, participating meant that they were going to be administered the drugs they so desperately craved. Laboratory protocols attempted to replicate the “natural” conditions experienced by addicts in the world outside the Lexington Narcotic Farm, meaning that patients were given high doses through intravenous injections.[xiii] The ARC operated long before the international organized trafficking of heroin, therefore addicts were exposed to highly pure narcotics with withdrawal symptoms more debilitating than what ex-addicts experience today.[xiv] Researchers believed that their data would be virtually useless if they were unable to record the highs and lows of addiction. As a result, they justified exposing their patients to the wrath of withdrawal by emphasizing the scientific value in re-addiction studies, but they failed to acknowledge its clear hypocrisy: patients were re-enacting the very conditions that led them to be admitted to the Narcotic Farm in the first place.[xv]

Photograph by artist Arthur Rothstein of a patient at Lexington Narcotic Farm

Patient Perspectives

In a hearing on the work done by the ARC from its establishment in 1935 through 1976 when the last patient was transferred out of the facility, a former test subject Eddie Flowers reflected on his experience: “Later on I came to grips with the fact that I was used. Being a young man, I was very vulnerable in the sense that if it’s about drugs, I wanted drugs.”[xvi] In his testimony, Flowers also mentioned the existence of a “drug” bank which experiment participants could choose from as payment for their participation. He went on to say:

There was a guy there by the name of Red [Rodney] . . . [who] shared with me, ’cause he didn’t share that with a lot of other people, about the fact that he was in this drug program in Lexington, Kentucky. He kind of like laid it out to me, that they’d take him out of the main population for two or three weeks, and they’d try different drugs on him, and then they’d pay him off in heroin, ’cause that was his drug of choice. . . . [T]hrough his ‘nagling, I was able to get in. . . . [T]hat’s when I began to be a part of that whole experimentation thing. (2004)[xvii]

Witness testimonies like Flowers’ and official ARC reports reveal that participants were administered every abused drug known to humans. Studies often involved the administration of large doses followed by periods of forced sobriety that would cause volunteers to experience the worst of withdrawal. In a statement on the ethics of the research practiced by the ARC, its former director Dr. Harris Isbel claimed that “ethical codes were not so highly developed” during the time he proceeded over the center. Despite attempts to mitigate criticism, the ARC continues to have a legacy of unethical research practices that have now made it illegal for federal prisoners to be used in medical research of any kind.[xviii]

Motivations for Different Institutional Actors

The research conducted at the Addiction Research Center attracted a variety of institutional actors with different motivations behind their support, ultimately allowing experimentation on the prisoners held at the Lexington Narcotic Farm to continue virtually uninterrupted for decades.

A close up of a book

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University of Kentucky Archives Atlanta Georgian “The Light of a New Day” Date: March 4, 1935

First and foremost, the federal government saw the establishment of The Narcotic Farm as a necessary measure to contain the new prisoner population of ex-addicts created by increasingly enforced regulations surrounding domestic narcotic use. Publicity campaigns demonstrate how these facilities helped promote a positive image of federal efforts to combat the growing problem of opiate addiction in America. For example, The Denver Post ran a full page spread on March 19, 1939 that promised that “Drug Addicts have a Future.” The article’s images depict a crazed narcotics abuser being pacified by a Narco administrator demonstrating the salvation promised by the institution.[xix] Furthermore, a front-page spread ran by the Atlanta Georgian in 1935 echoes this promise, as it depicts a long line of “victims of drug addiction” making their way to the Federal Narcotics Farm in search of “public enlightenment.”[xx]

The federal government’s vested interest in the Lexington Narcotic Farm was about more than gaining public approval as the research conducted behind its walls benefitted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) amongst other arms of the federal government. In a memorandum to the chair of medical sciences, Mr. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, mentions the Army’s interest in a number of compounds synthesized by the academic chemists of the ARC.[xxi] Furthermore, investigations from the 1970s revealed the CIA funded the lab’s research into LSD to find a potential drug that could allow for “mind control” as a part of a project they called MK-Ultra.[xxii]

Members of the scientific and medical communities also had a vested interest in conducting their research at the Lexington Narcotic Farm because working with the approval of the federal government allowed them to further their research agendas with minimal constraints. On federal involvement in the ARC’s work, Dr. Caroline Jean Acker, a historian of medicine and public health at Carnegie Mellon University writes: “From its earliest stages, the committee sought and obtained cooperation from federal officials active in drug enforcement and addiction research. These links kept the work tied to policy that reflected the new, harsher view of addicts; they also suggest that the quest for the non-addictive opiate analgesic was meaningful to these groups as well.”[xxiii] For the academic chemists, physicians and pharmacologists that made up the ARC, collaborating with the federal government also granted them unique access to the drugs necessary for research into the underlying mechanisms behind addiction. Dr. Nathan B. Eddy, a physician who served a leading role in the pharmacological division of the National Research Council’s Committee on Drug Addiction, writes about how the involvement of Mr. Harry Anslinger was a vital resource for the scientists working at the ARC. Through Anslinger, researchers were provided with large amounts of confiscated morphine and heroin.[xxiv] Previously, researchers interested in understanding the addictive effects of these drugs were limited by a lack of vital starting materials due to stipulations outlined in the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. Therefore, operating out of the Lexington Narcotic Farm and in cooperation with the federal government enabled ARC scientists to overcome this obstacle and conduct readdiction studies on its prisoners.

Additionally, for the academic chemists at the ARC seeking to synthesize alternative analgesics, federal support allowed them to forge mutually beneficial relationships with prominent pharmaceutical companies that helped advance their discoveries. For example, when these chemists successfully synthesized desomorphine from opiate starting materials, they were unable to achieve adequate yields for the doses required for human subject testing. At the time, Merck and Company, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works and the New York Quinine Company were the only pharmaceutical companies under the Harrison Act that were permitted to import and process opium on a large enough scale.[xxv] Through relationships fortified by Anslinger and other federal officers, these pharmaceutical companies collaborated with ARC researchers to make substantial amounts of the compound for clinical testing on the ex-addicts held at Narco. Furthermore, within the academic chemistry community, little research had been done into analytical and synthetic work involving alkaloid chemistry, or the chemistry of synthetic opiates. Therefore, the studies conducted by the ARC provided opportunity for innovation and discovery.[xxvi]

International actors and foreign governments also benefitted from the research conducted by the ARC. Anslinger’s presence on the committee linked its work to the international conversation on drug control policy. The goal of ARC chemists to synthesize a nonaddictive analgesic was supported by international efforts to curb the distribution of opiates to medical channels, as policymakers feared the iatrogenic causes of addiction. Ansligner’s ties to international actors allowed chemists from the ARC to serve as expert consultants for the League of Nations’ Opium Advisory Committee.[xxvii] After World War II, there was a sudden surge in the availability of potentially dangerous and addictive new drugs. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations turned to the ARC to test the effects of these novel drugs on human subjects because at the time it was the only institution in the world performing this kind of research. For more than two decades, ARC researchers continued to evaluate virtually every new pharmaceutical to hit the market on the patients at Narco[xxviii] and this partnership continued after WWII and into the 1960s in the form of contributions to research funding.[xxix]


Amongst the aforementioned interests, those of the ex-addicts admitted to the Lexington Narcotic Farm and experimented on were not represented. At its inception, Narco was erected with the purpose of quarantining addicts far from the temptations of the communities they called home. The hybrid prison-hospital promised to rehabilitate addicts, relabeling them from criminals to patients worthy of government and scientific investment. However, the research conducted by the Addiction Research Council reveals the dark underbelly of this alleged “New Deal for the drug addict” as it involved administration of opiates to the prisoners in order to study the mechanisms behind addiction.[xxx] An early conclusion established by the ARC was that “an addict’s drug-seeking behavior after withdrawal is at least partly conditioned.”[xxxi] This finding, demonstrates precisely why the ex-addicts undergoing rehabilitation at the Lexington Narcotic Farm represented a population incapable of truly providing informed consent to experiments that enabled them to receive doses of the drugs they so deeply craved.

These ethical concerns were identified by Assistant Surgeon General Walter L. Treadway, a member of the ARC in the years leading up to the opening of the Lexington Narcotic Farm: “It is not assumed that Federal prisoners should be used as experimental animals for the furtherance of medical knowledge. However, a large prison may be regarded as analogous to a laboratory, subject to control, where observations and scientific studies should be made possible.”[xxxii] Treadway’s caution summarizes how the human subject research at the ARC was inherently exploitative. To generate the knowledge that they sought, researchers needed to exert a degree of social control over their subjects that only a federal prison—that stripped inmates of their autonomy when they walked in the door—could provide.

In conclusion, researchers at the ARC were complicit in conducting unethical research on federal prisoners housed at the Lexington Narcotics Farm. Narco’s approach to addiction rehabilitation was found to be virtually unsuccessful as relapse rates hovered around 90% throughout its tenure.[xxxiii] Regardless, the investment of numerous powerful institutional actors into the ARC’s research allowed its studies to continue without interruption for nearly 50 years.


Campbell, Nancy D. The Narcotic Farm. New York: Abrams, 2008.

Caroline Jean Acker. “Addiction and the Laboratory: The Work of the National Research Council’s Committee on Drug Addiction, 1928-1939.” Isis 86, no. 2 (June 1995): 167–93.

David F.  Musto. “The Harrison Act.” In The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, 54–68. 1999. Oxford University Press, n.d. Accessed December 3, 2019.

Dr. Geoff Watts. “Cells, Addicts, and the Gulf between Them.” New Scientist, October 20, 1977.

Eddy, Nathan Browne. The National Research Council Involvement in the Opiate Problem, 1928-1971. Washington D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1973.

Nancy D. Campbell. “A New Deal for the Drug Addict: Addiction Research Moves to Lexington, Kentucky.” In Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research, 319. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Nancy D. Campbell. “The Tightrope between Coercion and Seduction: Characterizing the Ethos of Addiction Research at Lexington.” In Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research, 319. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Pattillo, Alexandra. “Dr. Herbert Kleber: How a 1960s ‘Narcotic Farm’ Shaped Modern Addiction Treatment.” Inverse. Accessed December 5, 2019.

Walsh, J. “Addiction Research Center: Pioneers Still on the Frontier.” Science 182, no. 4118 (December 21, 1973): 1229–31.

White, Wm. C. “COMMITTEE ON DRUG ADDICTION OF THE NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL.” Science 73, no. 1882 (January 23, 1931): 97–98.

[i] David F.  Musto, “The Harrison Act,” 59–63.

[ii] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 36.

[iii]Eddy, The National Research Council Involvement in the Opiate Problem, 1928-1971, 25.

[iv] Caroline Jean Acker, “Addiction and the Laboratory,” 178.

[v] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 36.

[vi] Eddy, The National Research Council Involvement in the Opiate Problem, 1928-1971, 26.

[vii] Dr. Geoff Watts, “Cells, Addicts, and the Gulf between Them,” 158.

[viii] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 166.


[x] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 164.

[xi] Walsh, “Addiction Research Center,” 1229.

[xii] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 172

[xiii] Nancy D. Campbell, “The Tightrope between Coercion and Seduction: Characterizing the Ethos of Addiction Research at Lexington,” 114–15.

[xiv] Walsh, “Addiction Research Center,” 1229.

[xv] Nancy D. Campbell, “The Tightrope between Coercion and Seduction: Characterizing the Ethos of Addiction Research at Lexington,” 114–15.

[xvi] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 165.

[xvii] Nancy D. Campbell, “The Tightrope between Coercion and Seduction: Characterizing the Ethos of Addiction Research at Lexington,” 116

[xviii] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 167.

[xix] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 13.

[xx] University of Kentucky Archives Atlanta Georgian “The Light of a New Day” Date: March 4, 1935

[xxi] Eddy, The National Research Council Involvement in the Opiate Problem, 1928-1971, 45.

[xxii] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 165.

[xxiii] Caroline Jean Acker, “Addiction and the Laboratory,” 178.

[xxiv] Eddy, The National Research Council Involvement in the Opiate Problem, 1928-1971, 20.

[xxv] Caroline Jean Acker, “Addiction and the Laboratory,” 181.


[xxvii] Caroline Jean Acker, “Addiction and the Laboratory,” 179.

[xxviii] Campbell, The Narcotic Farm, 164.

[xxix] Eddy, The National Research Council Involvement in the Opiate Problem, 1928-1971, 81.

[xxx] Nancy D. Campbell, “A New Deal for the Drug Addict: Addiction Research Moves to Lexington, Kentucky,” 55.

[xxxi] Walsh, “Addiction Research Center,” 1230.

[xxxii] Nancy D. Campbell, “A New Deal for the Drug Addict: Addiction Research Moves to Lexington, Kentucky,” 54.

[xxxiii] Pattillo, “Dr. Herbert Kleber.”

Assessing the Impact of Addict Identity

By Théo Davis

Emily Remus’ “Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture, Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siècle Chicago” and Hannah Cooper’s “Medical Theories of Opiate Addiction’s Aetiology and Their Relationship to Addicts’ Perceived Social Position in the United States: a Historical Analysis” present two compelling, albeit very different, analyses of how the perception of marginalized groups consuming drugs shifts society’s view of said drugs. Cooper’s adherence to the scientific method, compared to Remus’ linear narrative, paired with Cooper’s more profound and effective relation to overarching sociological theories make for a more useful historical analysis.

When reading Hannah Cooper’s article published in the International Journal of Drug Policy (with a respectable impact factor of 4.244), immediately apparent is its loyalty to the scientific method, from the section structure to the quantitative methods. Cooper establishes a solid foundation through Critical Race Theory, Social Constructionism Theory, and other scientific papers, before reinforcing internal validity with random sampling and robust methods for operationalizing medical professionals’ aetiology and prognosis of opiate addicts. Most impressively, Cooper’s results reinforce critical race theory and implore current day researchers and medical professionals to critically self-evaluate how their perception of a drug’s users distorts how they view a drug, its causes, and its impacts.

This analysis’ strengths are rooted in the scientific method. While this method remains the “gold standard” in many fields of academic research, its adoption within the field of history has been sporadic, as issues with data availability render many questions hopelessly unanswerable. Further, even with the scientific method, questions always remain, such as how truly representative the Indux Medicus, from which these sample was drawn, is, and how the results vary in different regions of the United States with differing demographics of addicts..

In contrast, Emily Remus’ analysis adopts a more narrative structure; presenting a linear series of arguments, and retaining a thesis. The paper was published in the Journal of American History, which carries a measly impact factor of .684. This is worth considering, but is not detrimental to the paper’s validity itself. More worrying is the absence of opposing views or arguments to address inevitable concerns. The overarching argument appears both convenient and too broad in scope.

Despite this, Remus’ argument is compelling, proposing that Chicago’s unique environment, paired with the rising purchasing power and heightening cultural influence of monied women led to radical emerging forms of female pleasure-seeking, such as expanded autonomy for public drinking and greater political activity. Chicago is convincingly established as the laboratory of urban modernism and the center of American progressivism. Similarly, Remus assures with ample citations that the market began to tailor to female pleasure-seeking and cultural cachet as it had never before. Remus concludes that Tippling Ladies presented the amalgamation of modernizing gender roles and America’s culture of consumption, antagonizing opponents of both.

Both of these analyses wrangle with the perception of marginalized groups consuming drugs and how society shifts its view of the drug as a result. Cooper demonstrates that medical professionals’ aetiology and prognosis of addiction shifts depending on the perceived identity of the addicts. As opiate addicts shifted from being primarily affluent and white to being primarily poorer Americans of color, the perceived causes of addiction shifted from external to internal and the nature of condition from curable to incurable. Remus likewise argues that fear and discomfort with expanding female pleasure-seeking contributed to male villainization of Tippling Ladies and support for the Temperance Movement. As the Temperance Movement grew, support largely divided along gender lines.

I argue the discrepancy in each article’s strength also lies with how each author relates their analysis to a greater sociological perspective. Where Remus romanticizes a narrative of feminist empowerment by affluent white women, Cooper demonstrates an ever-evolving systematic prejudice of poorer, less white, Americans. Cooper explains how drugs, and how the medical profession observes them, reinforces existing unequal power structures. Remus, meanwhile, fails to significantly investigate the broader social implications, leaving the reader with questions such as; did monied women empower themselves through expanded pleasure-seeking or was this “empowerment” only a tool for men and capitalism to ever-further exploit women?

Both articles, to different effects, promote greater ideas; of shifting modern gender codes and growing consumerism, and of Critical Race Theory. Thanks to the scientific method, Cooper provides more effective support for the later, going so far as to present a topical recommendation to those in the medical profession today. The comparison of these two articles leaves us with profound questions as well. Should the scientific process play a larger role in historical analyses? Assuming there is inevitable bias within both, is a scientifically valid random sample more accurate than a specialized historian who aggregates?

The “Drug Problem”

by Hope Chang

Few could dispute that drug use has been and continues to be controversial – particularly in the United States. From 1920-1933, the government implemented a nationwide constitutional ban on alcohol. Citizens of the 1960s experienced the rise of a counterculture heavily associated with psychedelic use. Today, our headlines are constantly bombarded with discussion of marijuana legalization. Substances – what their effects are, who uses them, how they are used – have consistently been a moralized topic of heated debate and are deeply influenced by their contemporaneous public perceptions. The central arguments in both Cooper’s “Medical theories of opiate addiction’s etiology and their relationship to addicts’ perceived social position in the United States: an historical analysis” and Becker’s “Drugs: What Are They?” operate under the assumption that drug policies and the perceptions of drugs are somewhat arbitrary, in that they often are more reflective of their social contexts than their pharmacological makeups.  However, despite this similarity, both authors diverge in their methods of inquiry and ultimately in their key takeaways on how to address the American “drug problem”.

                  In “Medical theories of opiate addiction’s etiology and their relationship to addicts’ perceived social position in the United States: an historical analysis”, Cooper attempts to explore the relationship between health professional’s theories of the causes of opiate addiction and the general public’s perceptions of the opiate addict’s race/ethnicity, social class and gender in two time periods: 1880-1920 and 1955-1975. Cooper acknowledges that drug-related laws and policies do not only relate to inequitable social relations, but often contribute to and perpetuate them. She guides her exploration through two frameworks: Firstly, the social construction of knowledge, which posits that all knowledge (including scientific knowledge) is produced socially, and thus reflects the social contexts from which it was produced. Secondly, critical race theory, which postulates that the dominant social group – in this case, wealthy whites – which establishes and perpetuates unequal racial/ethnic relations, does so to maintain their material and social gain. In “Drugs: What Are They?”, it could be argued that Becker also operates under these two frameworks, even if it is never explicitly stated. Becker acknowledges the presence of a real “drug problem” in the US but argues that it has been dealt with and conceptualized wrongly. He states that instead of defining substance use as a problematic human behavior that must be addressed through police force, we should be treating the phenomenon as a “semantic problem”.  He emphasizes that categories such as “drugs”, “food” or “medicine” are not pharmacological categories which accurately reflect the chemical makeup of a substance, but rather decided upon by a small group of people with enough power (i.e. the State) to elect what substances are proper or improper. Ultimately, Becker alludes that drug policies often rest on the arbitrary classification of substances and thus we must redefine this initial (mis)classification to adequately address problems surrounding their use. Although Becker concentrates on the role of the government in unjustly creating drug policies, from Cooper’s critical race theory perspective, one could argue that the government is in many ways synonymous to the dominant social group given that it is primarily made up of older, white, wealthy men. In both articles, then, Cooper and Becker are in agreeance that unequal power structures have an inherent and formidable influence on drug policies.

Cooper and Becker both concentrate on the social perceptions of substances and how these perceptions affect policies and users. Cooper utilizes qualitative methods to explore her hypothesis that changes in the perceived racial/ethnic, class, and gender demographics of addicts at least partially contribute to the development of medical theories surrounding opiate addiction. She retrospectively meta-analyzes primary source medical articles from two specific time frames, selecting from a stratified random sample of all the appropriate studies published in medical journals. Additionally, Cooper provides a plethora of other studies to support her claims throughout. Conversely, although Becker also cites other studies as evidence, he does so far more sparsely. Ultimately, most of his claims seemingly arise from his own logic and remain unsubstantiated, providing only two references at the end of his article. In this realm, Becker’s article falls short in comparison to Cooper’s. Although Becker’s arguments may be more stimulating in some regards, he ultimately lacks the evidence to truly prove them and as a result his future directions are quite vague and unactionable. Altogether, Cooper’s article clearly stands out in its rigorous and scientific methods. Cooper and Becker operate under similar frameworks in discussing drug use in the US – they both recognize the possible negative implications of drug use while also emphasizing that its surrounding policies can oftentimes be biased andeven arbitrary. However, Cooper’s article ultimately stands out in its rigorous methods and its explicit key takeaway that present day researchers should be critical when studying the causes of addiction, remaining mindful of the ways that their biases could not only present itself in their research but the ways in which their research could perpetuate social inequities.

The Importance of Place in Drug Culture:

Tippling Ladies and Consumerism in Late 19th Century Chicago and Drug Abuse in Post-War New York City

By Shreeja Patel

In “Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siećle Chicago,” Dr. Emily Remus describes how modernism and the socio-political climate of the end of the 19th century gave rise to public disdain for women consuming alcohol in commercial public spaces. These women, referred to as “lady tipplers,” were distinct from other women at the time because they typically came from wealthy families and therefore had disposable income to spend on booze. Remus claims that public outcry was in response to new forms of female consumerism, demonstrated by the advent of new commercial public spaces in Chicago like tearooms and reserved spaces in luxury hotels designed to attract these women and their wealth. Furthermore, she emphasizes that the concept of women drinking in public radically opposed conventional social norms for women at the time. Overall, Remus suggests that Chicago’s “tippling ladies” gained a sense of mobility into spaces previously dominated by men by patronizing feminized commercial public spaces and that opposition to this practice was a reflection of public disapproval of pleasure-seeking consumerism in women.  

In “Jazz Joints and Junk,” Dr. Eric C. Schneider discusses the importance of place in the emergence of drug subculture in post-World War II New York City. He contextualizes this countercultural movement by discussing Mayor Laguardia’s alarm at drug use in the city and the coinciding regulatory measures taken by the federal government to combat marijuana and opioid—namely the Harrison and Marijuana Tax Acts of the 1930s. However, Schneider’s main argument rests in the idea that pushback against marijuana use was not due to the disruption caused by drug users but instead largely driven by the “social setting in which marijuana smoking occurred” (Schneider, 22). He claims that prohibitory measures were aimed at unearthing a shrouded culture of marijuana use in Harlem. With respect to opium use, Schneider characterizes the postwar jazz clubs of Times Square during the 1940s and 1950s as prime social settings for the birth of a new drug culture, as the concentration of musicians and patrons became an attractive feature for dealers and opium peddlers. He also suggests that this public manifestation of drug culture arose in the aftermath of the drug secrecy of the 1930s and led to more overt federal response in the form of police patrolling on the ground level as opposed to furtive investigation.

Both authors emphasize the importance of place in the emergence of each new drug culture. They recognize that addressing aspects of consumerism—like location and supply—are integral to drug popularization. Remus largely relies on scholarly journals and newspaper articles to characterize the practices of “tippling ladies” in late 19th century Chicago. Many of the quotes she pulls from these sources include observations made by witnesses and social commentary on female drinking practices. The inclusion of these supporting details creates a detailed image of how drinking amongst wealthy women played out during this time. However, I found the images she included in her article of the “tippling women” and the insides of their tearooms to be the most convincing evidence in supporting her argument that the creation of these spaces essentially subverted established social norms for women.

Fig 1. Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 2, 1896, p. 29. This sketch depicting women gathering at an alcohol serving soda fountain in downtown Chicago demonstrates both the luxury of this practice and its popularity amongst female patrons through clothing choices.

Though Schneider’s argument about the role of New York City jazz clubs in fostering the public problem of opioid abuse is quite similar, he relies mainly on personal accounts from jazz critics and artists to characterize his scenes. I found Schneider’s use of the investigative notes on marijuana culture published by the New York Academy of Medicine’s Committee on Public Health to be particularly intriguing. Though these notes are primary sources disseminated by an organization with a degree of authority, they essentially offer the personal account of Olive J. Cregan, one of the committee’s investigators. Cregan observed various physical spaces inhabited by marijuana users from tea pads and social clubs to the bathrooms of city public schools. As he concludes his discussion of Cregan’s sociological data, Schneider reflects on the credibility of her account: “While Cregan was not an ethnographer and did not reflect on being a participant-observer or probe into the meaning of her observations, she possessed a policewoman’s careful eye for detail that makes her account believable” (22). Schneider believes Cregan’s attention to detail gives her observations credence, but I am skeptical about the level of objectivity Cregan could have achieved as a white, female police officer. Much of Cregan’s observation came as a result of her trying to enter spaces predominantly occupied by those of highly distinct socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. For example, I was mostly struck by this notion when considering how Cregan went about investigating marijuana use amongst adolescent African-American high schoolers. Though she likely maintained a level of discretion in her research practices, I can imagine that her presence was acutely noticeable and likely played a role in what she was able to observe, thus corrupting its objectivity.