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The Narcotics Anonymous Tree and Beyond


Most of the published literature on recovery mutual aid societies focuses on descriptions of their personal program of recovery, with little attention to how such groups structure and sustain themselves as everlarger and increasingly complex organizations. The transition from a self-encapsulated recovery mutual aid meeting to a recovery mutual aid fellowship requires a structure for communication (e.g., information dissemination and mutual support between groups); service (e.g., assistance in starting new meetings, literature distribution, collaborating with other organizations); and governance (e.g., collective decision making on issues affecting the fellowship as a whole). There is in the history of such fellowships a pervasive tension between any founder/leader, national or worldwide governing body, local leaders and the mass of fellowship members. That tension breeds questions of:

  • Authenticity (Who best represents the aspirational values of the fellowship?)
  • Authority (Who has the right to make decisions and/or speak on behalf of the organization?)
  • Connection (What are the means through which individuals and groups within the fellowship can communicate with each other?)
  • Assistance (Who is responsible for addressing the needs of local groups, offering support to those wanting to start new groups, and responding to external professional and public requests for information and service?);
  • Stewardship (What is the best use of the fellowship’s human and financial resources?)

NA has wrestled with these questions since the first NA bylaws were written on Aug. 17, 1953. During the 1960s, an NA Board of Trustees (two NA members and two non-addicts) was created (1964), with the subsequent selection of six NA members to serve as “Permanent Trustees” (1969). In 1976, approval of the NA Tree, authored by Greg P. and Jimmy K., established a new service structure that continued to be amplified, revised and supplemented via:

  • an evolving NA Service Manual;
  • the work of key committees (e.g., the World Policy Committee, 1983; the Select Committee on the Service Structure, 1984);
  • efforts to more clearly define the purpose and functions of an NA group (1990);
  • articulation of the guiding principles of NA Service structure (Twelve Concepts, 1992);
  • the creation of new elements of the service structure (e.g., the World Board, the Human Resource Panel, andthe World Pool, 1998); and
  • a Service System Project (2008) designed to address continuing problems within the service structure at the regional and local level.

These and other numerous efforts confirm the challenges faced in creating a viable structure that can serve the needs of a rapidly evolving and growing recovery fellowship. Although how that is best accomplished remains a subject of considerable discussion within NA, the ultimate intended purpose of that service structure has become clearer over the course of NA’s history.

The 2010 NA World Service Conference adopted the following refined vision for NA Service:

All of the efforts of Narcotics Anonymous are inspired by the primary purpose of our groups. Upon this common ground we stand committed.

Our vision is that one day:

  • Every addict in the world has the chance to experience our message in his or her own language and culture and find the opportunity for a new way of life;
  • Every member, inspired by the gift of recovery, experiences spiritual growth and fulfillment through service;
  • NA service bodies worldwide work together in a spirit of unity and cooperation to support the groups in carrying our message of recovery;
  • Narcotics Anonymous has universal recognition and respect as a viable program of recovery.

Honesty, trust, and goodwill are the foundation of our service efforts, all of which rely upon the guidance of a loving Higher Power.

Looking from the outside in, today’s addiction professionals and recovery support specialists might view NA service and support structure as beginning with the individual member attending local meetings hosted by one or more named NA groups. Sponsor-sponsee relationships (mentorship of new members) take place in the context of these meetings, and it is common for members to select a home group that they regularly attend and at which they can vote on matters of group conscience affecting the home group or NA as a whole. Members in each home group have the opportunity for service in many roles, both formal and informal. Members who pursue such service work are referred to as trusted servants. Formal service positions, which are generally elected positions through group conscience, include secretary, treasurer, group service representative (GSR) and GSR-Alternate. Examples of informal positions, which some consider the highest level of service, include opening the meeting door, making the coffee, putting out the literature, leading the meeting, and greeting people at the door.

Local NA groups form an Area Service Committee to provide coordinated NA services for a particular geographical area and to carry the conscience of the groups to Regional and World levels. Area Service Committees elect their own trusted servants (Area Chairperson, Vice Chairperson, Secretary, Treasurer, and Regional Committee Member) and also maintain standing service committees such as:

  • Public Relations Committee (PR)/ Public Information (PI) – informs the public, prospective members and professionals about Narcotics Anonymous through local NA web pages, printing meeting schedules, phone lines and fellowship development (outreach).
  • Hospitals and Institutions (H & I) Committee – carries the NA message to those who do not have access to NA meetings in the community, e.g., those in hospitals, treatment centers or correctional facilities.
  • Convention Committee – raises money and plans an Area NA Convention.
  • Activities Committee – promotes unity in the fellowship through events such as dances, cookouts, celebrations, speaker jams.
  • Policy Committee – maintains local policy and procedure for the Area Service Committee.
  • Literature Committee – participates in input and development of new literature and maintains an adequate supply of literature available to groups at Area Service Meetings.

Standing committees will vary from Area to Area. Similar to the structure and function of Area Service Committees, Region Service Committees are comprised of Areas from a particular geographical area.

The operational chart changes at the World Level from how most, but not all, Regions and Areas provide service. Narcotics Anonymous World Services (NAWS) is comprised of World Board and the World Service Office (WSO). The World Board, WSO and Regions work together to hold the World Service Conference every two years, where issues of importance to the worldwide NA fellowship are discussed. There are no standing Committees at the World Level. Instead, a task (e.g., writing new literature) is voted on by members of the World Service Conference (Regional Delegates, World Board and Human Resources), and if approved, the Human Resource Panel draws from the World Pool NA members they think will be the most qualified to be on a Workgroup to complete the approved task. 

The NA world service structure signifies another level of differentiation from Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services consists of groups, districts and areas from the U.S. and Canada that participate in an annual General Service Conference. There are 58 autonomous International General Service Offices listed on the AAWS, Inc. website that do not participate in the North American General Service Conference. NAWS consists of groups, areas and regions from the entire world that participate in a World Service Conference every two years. Zonal Forums have become an important vehicle for NA communities from around the world to participate in service-oriented sharing, communicating, cooperation, and growth. While existing outside of NA’s formal decision-making system, zonal forums help developing and emerging NA communities and make contributions at the World Service Conference.

As can be seen from this brief summary, decision making at the level of world services has become increasingly complex in tandem with NA’s growth (from support for 2,966 meetings located primarily in the United States in 1983 to support for today’s 58,000+ meetings in 131 countries). While tensions still exist within NA, there has been significant maturation in the service system. As the service system continues to evolve, NA will continue to strive for better communication, more inclusiveness, less redundancy, greater efficiency and more assertive outreach to the still suffering addict.

What is important for the student of recovery is that such struggles reflect normal, although potentially distressing, growing pains of recovery mutual aid societies. The ultimate tasks of such coming of age involve decentralizing leadership, surviving the passing of the first generation of pioneers, achieving and protecting organizational autonomy, maintaining mission fidelity and developing a viable and evolving service structure.

NA Comes of Age

Throughout much of its history, NA existed in the shadow of AA – the stepchild of its famous parent. NA’s predecessors, such as Addicts Anonymous, drew their steps framework of recovery from the 12 Steps of AA, and their meeting formats mirrored AA meetings, e.g., use of the Serenity Prayer and Lord’s Prayer. The NA that exists today was founded by “bridge members” of AA who based the NA program of recovery on AA’s 12 Steps and 12 Traditions and who used AA participation as a support for their own recoveries. Interviews with early NA members are replete with references to reading AA literature, having AA sponsors, attending AA meetings – even meetings with two podiums, one on which was listed the 12 Steps of AA and the other draped with the 12 (or 13) Steps of Addicts Anonymous or NA.

During its first two decades, many NA members also attended AA meetings. As Dave F., a member of early NA in Pennsylvania, reports:

…everybody went to AA. Nobody would have even attempted – it would have been viewed as foolhardy and half-stepping – to try to stay clean solely on NA meetings. NA members simply didn’t have the clean time.

NA literature, NA meeting rituals and the larger culture of NA developed in the shadow of AA. But a “purist movement” and, more importantly, a larger consensus emerged within NA in the mid-1980s that challenged NA to step away from AA’s shadow and distinguish itself as a distinct recovery fellowship. This process began in the early 1980s, but was perhaps most exemplified in a 1985 communication from NA Trustees entitled, “Some Thoughts on Our Relationship with A.A.” This communication, written at the request of Bob Stone by a WSO staff writer and subsequently reviewed and published by the Trustees in the WSO’s Newsline, opened with an acknowledgement of NA’s gratitude to AA. It noted NA’s departure from AA in the choice of language used in NA’s First Step and then elaborated on this important divergence:

The A.A. perspective, with its alcohol oriented language, and the N.A. approach, with its clear need to shift the focus off the specific drug, don’t mix very well … When our members identify as “addicts and alcoholics,” or talk about “sobriety” and living “clean and sober,” the clarity of the N.A. message is blurred. The implication in this language is that there are two diseases, that one drug is separate from the pack, so that a separate set of terms are needed when discussing it. At first glance this seems minor, but our experience clearly shows that the full impact of the N.A. message is crippled by this subtle semantic confusion.  

This communiqué went on to define the essential NA message:

We are powerless over a disease that gets progressively worse when we use any drug. It does not matter what drug was at the center for us when we got here. Any drug use will release our disease all over again … Our steps are uniquely worded to carry this message clearly, so the rest of our language of recovery must be consistent with those steps. Ironically, we cannot mix these fundamental principles with those of our parent fellowship without crippling our own message.

The communiqué then called for a distinct NA culture:

…each Twelve Step Fellowship must stand alone, unaffiliated with everything else. It is our nature to be separate, to feel separate, and use a separate set of recovery terms, because we each have a separate, unique primary purpose … N.A. members ought to respect our primary purpose … and share in a way that keeps our fundamentals clear… Our members who have been unintentionally blurring the N.A. message by using drug-specific language such as “sobriety,” “alcoholic,” “clean and sober,” “dope fiend” etc. could help by identifying simply and clearly as addicts and using the words “clean, clean time and recovery” which imply no particular substance. And we all could help by referring to only our own literature at meetings, thereby avoiding any implied endorsement or affiliation. Our principles stand on their own.

The statement was presented at the NA World Service Conference in 1986 and became World Service Trustee Bulletin #13.

That same year, a letter appeared in the AA Grapevine by an NA member who shared the story of how he had attended AA in an effort to recover from his drug addiction. He described how he had learned all the “passwords” to avoid offending oldtimers with references to his drug use and also got involved in NA, which at the time had little of its own literature, few seasoned sponsors and little service structure. Multiplied by thousands, he suggested that before NA came into its own in the 1980s, many addicts had used AA in a way that stunted NA growth and tested AA traditions. His letter thanked AA for offering its program for adaptation by NA and for their strict adherence to their own traditions, which had helped push NA toward its current development. He concluded by noting the new growth and development of NA:

By going exclusively to NA, doing my service in NA, growing in my understanding of the NA message, I have left the AA groups just a little freer to focus on their own primary purpose … I also want to assure you that strong, stable, long-term recovery is available today in NA …

In addition to AA and key AA members, non-addicts have also played significant roles in NA and its predecessors, including Dr. Victor Vogel, Major Dorothy Berry, Father Dan Egan, Major Edward Dimond, Robert McQuire, Dr. Victor Vogel, Dorothy Gildersleeve, Dr. Ralph Worden, Dr. Louis Quitt, David Stewart, Reverend Herbert Schneider, Judge Leon Emerson, Dr. Mike Bohan, Bob Stone and Jim Delizzia, to name a few of the most significant. Shaping an authentic and autonomous NA culture required NA to acknowledge the help of its benefactors and at the same time draw increasing strength from within its growing fellowship.The consensus forged in the 1980s on the need for a distinct NA culture has continued to grow and solidify. With this consensus came more widespread abandonment of AA- and treatmentinfused language (e.g., “drugs and alcohol,” “cross-addicted,” “addict and alcoholic,” “clean and sober” and “sobriety”) and the embrace of NA language (“addiction,” self-identification as an “addict,” “clean” and “recovery from the disease of addiction”). Etiquette surrounding meeting language and rituals was further clarified through the widespread distribution of the “Clarity Statement” (an excerpt from NA World Services Board of Trustees Bulletin #13) and the pamphlet An Introduction to NA meetings. Those attending NA today are more likely to encounter only NA literature and NA speakers, a focus on solution-focused rather than problemfocused communications, heightened and sustained NA service activity and rigorous efforts to adhere to NA Traditions. Also evident are NA members in long-term recovery remaining active in NA rather than disengaging or migrating to another fellowship.

The days when those seeking recovery found only a few local NA meetings, only a few NA members with more than three years of clean time and no distinct NA culture faded as NA came of age, and continues to come of age, in community after community. Before his death, Jimmy K. was able to reflect in his private journaling that in the past, many addicts with and without alcohol problems had found help in AA, but that “today the Society of Narcotics Anonymous is available to meet the responsibility of carrying its message to the addict.”

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.