Type to search

Narcotics Anonymous: Its History and Culture


Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) stands as the benchmark by which all other addiction recovery mutual aid societies are measured due to its longevity, national and international dispersion, size of its membership, adaptation of its program to other problems of living, influence on professionally-directed addiction treatment, cultural visibility, and the growing number of scientific studies on its active ingredients and their effects on long-term recovery. That said, other addiction recovery mutual aid societies are growing in number and in the diversity of their philosophies and methods. Although Narcotics Anonymous (NA) was one of the earliest adaptations of the AA program, NA remains less well-known among addiction professionals. The purpose of this special issue of Counselor, abridged from the forthcoming new edition of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, is to provide an overview of the history and culture of NA and to distinguish the NA program from AA and other recovery mutual aid societies. The full version of this paper with complete source citations is posted at www.williamwhitepapers.com and http://www.magshare.org/narchive/.

Addiction recovery mutual aid societies rise within unique historical contexts that can exert profound and prolonged effects on their character. Just as the birth of AA is best understood in the context of the repeal of Prohibition and the challenges of the Great Depression, the history of NA is best understood in the cultural context of the 1950s. It was in this decade that the notion of “good” drugs and “bad” drugs became fully crystallized. Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine achieved the status of culturally celebrated drugs as an exploding pharmaceutical industry poured out millions of over-the-counter and prescription psychoactive drugs. Heroin and cannabis became increasingly demonized in the wake of a post-World War II opiate addiction epidemic. Social panic triggered harsh new anti-drug laws. Known addicts were arrested for “internal possession” and prohibited from associating via “loitering addict” laws. Any gathering of recovering addicts for mutual support was subjected to regular police surveillance. Mid-century treatments for addiction included electroconvulsive therapy (“shock treatment”), psychosurgery (prefrontal lobotomies) and prolonged institutionalization. This is the inhospitable soil in which NA grew.

Two 1935 events were critical to the eventual rise of recovery mutual aid groups for drug addiction: the founding of AA and its subsequent outreach to hospitals and prisons; and the opening of the first federal “Narcotic Farm” (prison hospital) in Lexington, Kentucky. This article will explore the history of NA, but read carefully, because there was more than one NA, only one of which survived to carry its message of hope to addicts around the world.

Addiction Recovery in AA: Dr. Tom M.

Within four years of the founding of AA, individuals addicted to opiates and other drugs began exploring whether mutual support and practicing AA’s 12 Steps might offer a means of recovery. Ground zero for transmission of the AA program to drug addicts was the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Opened May 25, 1935, and widely known as the “Narcotics Farm” or “Narco,” this prison / hospital treated people addicted to narcotics who had been sentenced for federal drug crimes and those who had applied for voluntary treatment. One enduring outcome of Narco was the discovery there that the AA program could be successfully applied to other drug addictions.

Dr. Tom, a physician who had been an alcoholic before developing a 12-year addiction to morphine, entered the Narcotic Farm in 1939 to take “the cure” and while there, found a newly published book, Alcoholics Anonymous, that changed his life. Upon returning to Shelby, North Carolina, in the fall of 1939, Dr. Tom M. and three other men held the first meeting of AA in North Carolina. Dr. Tom M. is the first known person to achieve sustained recovery from morphine addiction through AA, and the Shelby group became a resource for AA General Headquarters in New York to respond to inquiries about a solution for drug addiction.

Early experiments in applying AA’s 12 Steps to the problem of opiate addiction span a period in which AA was becoming increasingly conscious of “other drugs.” AA member “Doc N.” wrote a letter to the AA Grapevine in 1944 suggesting a “hopheads corner” through which AA members who were also recovering from narcotic addiction could share their experience, strength and hope. This was followed by a long series of Grapevine articles about drugs (narcotics, sedatives, tranquilizers and amphetamines), including a 1945 warning from AA co-founder Bill Wilson about the dangers of “goofballs” in which he acknowledged that he had once nearly killed himself with chloral hydrate. Early Grapevine articles became the basis for a series of AA pamphlets, beginning in 1948 with Sedatives: Are they an A.A. problem? The key, sometimes contradictory, points in these early (1948, 1952) pamphlets were that:

  • The alcoholic has a “special susceptibility to habit-forming drugs of all types” (1952, p. 18).
  • Pills often lead to a resumption of drinking and loss of sobriety.
  • A “pill jag” should be considered a slip.
  • “The problems of the pilltaker are the same as those of the alcoholic” (1948, p. 8).
  • Pill-takers are often psychopathic personalities, and AA members should only concern themselves with the “disease of alcoholism” (1948, p.9).
  • AA members should refrain from administering sedatives as part of their 12 Step work—a not uncommon practice during this period.

The creation of the AA Grapevine in 1944 created the conduit through which addicts in AA first recognized their mutual presence and reached out to one another. During these early AA Grapevine exchanges, Dr. Tom suggested the possibility of establishing an AA group for addicts at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington. Two and a half years later, another AA member, Houston S., turned this idea into a reality.

Houston S. and Addicts Anonymous

AA outreach to prisons grew throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, as did prison-based AA groups. Current and former members of prison-based AA groups communicated through newsletters bearing such names as Alconaire (South Dakota), Alky Argot (Wisconsin), BAR-LESS (Indiana), The Corrector (Illinois), The Cloud Chaser (Minnesota), Cross Roads (Quebec, Canada), Eye Opener (Ohio), Folsomite (California), New View (New Hampshire), PenPointers (Minnesota), The Inventory (North Carolina) and The Signet (Virginia). The message of 12 Step recovery was first carried to addicts in prison by Houston S., an AA member without a history of other drug addictions.

Houston S. developed a severe drinking problem after his training as a civil engineer at the Virginia Military Institute (1910-1914) and service in the U.S. Marine Corps (1918-1919). Family members repeatedly nursed him back to temporary health until Houston finally found permanent sobriety within AA in Montgomery, Alabama, in June 1944. From the earliest days of his recovery, he developed an evangelic fervor for helping others. To the occasional embarrassment of his family, Houston would share his recovery story to anyone at any time. Relatives tell many stories of the men he coached into recovery, temporarily housed, and helped financially, including paying for some to go to school.

In Montgomery, Houston helped a sales executive who was addicted to both alcohol and morphine. The sales executive stopped drinking through AA, but was unable to sustain recovery from his morphine addiction in spite of his prior treatment at the Narcotic Farm in Lexington. As a result of this experience, Houston became quite interested in AA members who were experiencing dual problems with alcohol and other drugs. When Houston was transferred to Frankfort, Kentucky in September 1946, just 20 miles from the Narcotic Farm, he called upon the medical director of the hospital, Dr. Victor Vogel, and suggested initiating a group similar to AA for addicts. With Dr. Vogel’s approval, Houston volunteered to help launch such a group inside the Lexington facility.

The first meeting of the new group was held on Feb. 16, 1947. The members christened themselves Addicts Anonymous and met regularly at Lexington from 1947 until 1966. Houston remained involved with the group until his health began to fail in 1963.

Through his liaison, AA groups in Kentucky as near as Frankfort and as far as Louisville provided regular volunteers to speak at the Addicts Anonymous meetings in Lexington. The sales executive who sparked Houston’s initial interest later returned to Lexington as a voluntary patient, began attending the AA meetings, and went on to achieve stable recovery.

Addicts Anonymous group meetings were completely voluntary. Of more than 1,000 prisoners in Lexington, regular meeting attendance peaked at 85 men and 28 women. The meetings followed a format similar to AA meetings, and guidance for personal recovery was based on an adaptation of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Many of the Addicts Anonymous members who left Lexington were successfully helped by Alcoholics Anonymous groups in their local communities. Communication with members who had left Lexington came through an Addicts Anonymous newsletter, The Key, which was published by members working in the Narcotic Farm’s Vocational and Educational Unit. This newsletter discussed issues of concern to those undergoing treatment in Lexington or who were re-adjusting to community life as a person in recovery.
The spread of Addicts Anonymous from institutional settings to the community began with one man, Danny C., who like Houston S., became something of a recovery evangelist.

Danny C.: The Rise and Fall of the First NA

Danny C. was born July 7, 1907, in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Following the death of both his parents in Danny’s early childhood, he was taken in by a physician and later relocated to St. Joseph, Missouri. There, Danny lived a fairly uneventful life until his first exposure to opiates sparked a 25-year addiction to morphine and heroin.

At the age of 16 my foster mother, who was a staff physician in the hospital where we resided, gave me morphine for the relief of pain caused by an abscessed ear. I liked the feeling the morphine gave me and, after the operation, when the drug was no longer administered, I asked for more, but was refused. I knew where the pills were kept, and helped myself to them, not even knowing what narcotics were.

His mother arranged for treatment for Danny and even moved to an isolated rural community where she thought he would be free of temptation – all to no avail. Danny spent nine of his next 20 years in prison on drug-related convictions.

Danny C. was among the first patients admitted in 1935 to the newly opened U.S. Public Health Service Hospital for addicts in Lexington, Kentucky. It was the first of his eight admissions over the ensuing 13 years. Following a suicide attempt and final re-admission in 1948, Danny participated in Addicts Anonymous meetings and had a profound spiritual experience that served as a catalyst for his sustained recovery. It was during this time that Danny came under the mentorship of Houston S., who “inspired me to learn to hope, and to have faith, at long last….

Following his final discharge from Lexington in April of 1949, Danny started Addicts Anonymous in New York City. He called the new group Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to avoid the potential confusion of two AAs. The NA created by Danny C. was not the NA that exists today, but Danny’s efforts first brought the NA name to national attention.

The first NA meeting was held at the Women’s House of Detention, and it was there that Danny met Major Dorothy Berry of the Salvation Army.

Major Berry offered NA the use of the Lowenstein Cafeteria in the Salvation Army located on 46th Street in the area of New York City known as Hell’s Kitchen. By January 1950, the first community- based 12 Step meetings were started for addicts. Major Berry, who became Director of the Eastern Territorial Correctional Service Bureau for Women in 1945, and later worked with female addicts at the House of Detention, was NA’s first patron. A corner of her office was the New York-based NA’s first headquarters.

The application for the incorporation of NA is dated January 25, 1951. Danny also created an organizational umbrella for NA – the National Advisory Council on Narcotics (NACON) – and organized an educational support group for parents of addicts (Committee for Medical Control of Narcotics Addiction). NACON mailings listed Danny’s full name as the Founder of NA and listed a board of directors that included Marty Mann of the National Committee on Alcoholism and Dr. Marie Nyswander, later co-developer of methadone maintenance. In 1953, NACON was unsuccessful in its attempt to solicit funds to support plans for a public education campaign and developing hospitals for the treatment of drug addiction.

 Early NA efforts were plagued by a lack of money and meeting space, perceptions by some in the community that NA was just a ruse for addicts to meet to exchange drugs and connections, and fear among addicts that NA was infiltrated by police undercover agents and informers. Few organizations welcomed the new group. Following the closing of the Salvation Army cafeteria, NA meetings were held on the Staten Island Ferry until meeting space was found at the McBurney Branch of the YMCA. An open meeting was held every Tuesday night with 10 to 30 persons attending, and a closed meeting (“ex-addicts only”) was held every Friday night that drew more than 25 persons. When NA celebrated its first anniversary in 1951, six members had achieved a year of sustained recovery. Three years later, a total of 90 members had achieved stable, drug-free living. Danny continued to lead New York NA meetings until his death at age 49 on August 19, 1956.

Following Danny’s passing, leadership within NA passed to Rae L., who worked for the Narcotics Coordinator’s Office of the New York City Department of Health – the first NA member working in a paid role within what would soon be an emerging field of community-based addiction treatment. Later support was also provided by non-addicts such as Father Dan Egan, known as the “Junkie Priest.” Father Egan was ordained in 1945 and sustained a special ministry to the addicted (and later to people with AIDS) until his death at age 84 in 2000. The New York NA group remained relatively small, with only four meetings a week in 1963, but there was some NA growth reported outside of New York City in Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Vancouver, Canada. In 1965, the New York-based NA reported “chapters” in 14 cities, 10 states, and three foreign countries.

The first NA literature from Danny C. and the New York group, the pamphlet Our Way of Life- An Introduction to NA, was published in 1950. During the 1950s and early 1960s, New York NA, as well as the Lexington-based Addicts Anonymous, achieved considerable visibility in prominent newspapers (New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, New York Post and Chicago Sun Times), magazines (Saturday Evening Post, Time, Newsweek, Look Magazine, Family Circle, Confidential Magazine and Down Beat Magazine), and in books bearing such titles as Narcotic Menace, Merchants of Misery, The Junkie Priest, Monkey on My Back, Mainline to Nowhere, Narcotics: An American Plan, and The Addict as a Patient.

After Danny’s passing, NA was promoted in New York City through pamphlets authored by Fr. Dan Egan in which he characterized addiction as a “disease of the whole person – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual” and suggested NA as its best solution. Other publications related to NA included an N.A. Newsletter produced in the early 1960s by the Fellowship House group at St. Augustine’s Presbyterian Church in the Bronx.

Growth of NA outside of New York City is illustrated by events in Cleveland. Marvin S. had been treated in the U.S. Public Health Service hospitals in Lexington and Fort Worth, Texas. While at Lexington, he participated in Addicts Anonymous, serving as secretary of the Men’s group in 1962. Upon his return to Cleveland, he attended AA meetings and helped start a local NA group under the organizational sponsorship of Captain Edward V. Dimond of the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center. Weekly meetings began November 6, 1963, but ceased in late 1964 when meeting attendance plummeted following Marvin’s relapse and return to Lexington. (Marvin later helped organize NA in the Miami/West Palm Beach area of Florida). NA meetings in Cleveland resumed in 1965 and continued until they were disbanded on Oct. 1, 1970, due to “other groups now providing service in this area.”

The NA created by Danny C. and others existed not as an organized fellowship but as isolated groups lacking connection through a common service structure. Some of the groups even chose names other than Narcotics Anonymous. The Chicago group, for example, referred to itself as Drug Addicts Anonymous. While attempts to adapt AA’s steps is evident across these groups, there is a marked absence of references to the use or adaptation of AA traditions, which were first formulated in 1946 and formally adopted by AA in 1950.

Because of the lack of a central service structure, it is unclear how many NA groups actually spread from the original New York-based NA. Evidence of these groups exists primarily within the oral history of later NA groups and as artifacts in NA archival collections. The early NA groups spawned under the original leadership of Danny C. dissipated in the mid-1960s and early 1970s in the wake of harsh new anti-drug laws and the death of Rae L. in 1972. But a new NA – NA as it is known today – was poised to rise on the West Coast. For the beginnings of that story, we must return to Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank all of those who agreed to be interviewed for this project and the many NA members, especially: Benny L., Bo S., Bob G., Catherine R., Chris B., Chris M., Dale S., Danny M., Dave F., George H., Joe P., Jim H., Jim N., Johnny S., Kermit O., Mike R., Ron H., Roy P., Steve and Lois R., Stuart S., and Walter D, who provided us copies of archival documents, tapes, photographs, or connections to oral history resources. We also extend a special thanks to Anthony Edmondson, Stephan Lantos, and Steve Rusch of Narcotics Anonymous World Service, Inc.; Michelle Mirza and Steven D’Avria of the Archives of the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office; and Scott Bedio of the Salvation Army Archives and Research Center for their assistance in acquiring copies of key historical documents. A special thanks to Dr. Al Mooney, Jimmy Mooney, Dr. Robert Mooney, Fred Morrison, Barbara Morrison, Nancy Morrison Baird, Virginia Coker, Dr. Sid Sewell, Geraldine Sewell, Sally Sewell Hudson, and Mary Smith. Finally, an enduring debt of gratitude to the many NA “long-timers” who served as reviewers of early drafts of this history.