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9/11 and Drug History: An Interview with Dr. Samuel R. Friedman

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is by Points Managing Editor Emerita Emily Dufton. She holds a PhD in American Studies from George Washington University and is the author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America. Email Emily at emily.dufton@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @emily_dufton. Welcome back, Emily!

On the morning of September 11, 2001, recent health problems forced Dr. Samuel R. Friedman to get a blood test before going to work. That meant he didn’t catch the train from New Brunswick to New York until a little before 9 am. The hour-long PATH train would normally let him out right under the World Trade Center, where his suite of offices took up the South Tower’s entire sixteenth floor. Friedman was a senior fellow at the NDRI—the National Development and Research Institutes, formerly the Narcotic and Drug Research Institutes—and he was going to be late that day, but not too late.

But the train didn’t make it to Port Authority. As it drew into the Newark station, the conductor announced that all passengers would be taken to Penn Station instead, at no extra charge. Friedman, who had been commuting for years, knew all about the city’s problems with public transportation. “‘Ok,’ I said to myself, ‘that happens sometimes.’”

But when they pulled away from Newark, Friedman knew something else was wrong. “The track goes up and then goes down so you’ve got a good view of New York City,” he said. “You could always see the Trade Center.”

“We noticed that the North Tower was smoking like hell, it was on fire. And we go along a few miles later and we see there’s smoke coming out of the South Tower too.”

It was 2001, Friedman said; fewer people had cell phones then. But as they sat on the train, word spread. Something happened. A plane hit a building. The World Trade Center. Something’s going on.

“And so I get into Penn Station,” Friedman remembered. “And I’m able to get a payphone–they had them then. My first connection is home, where I leave a message saying I’m fine, I’m going to get the next train home. I then call the office to say, in case there’s anyone there, get the fuck out.”

But no one answered that phone. It rang in the emptying tower.

9-11 Friedman Social Card

In 2001, the NDRI was at its peak. It had 280 employees, mostly researchers and social scientists doing grant-funded studies of drug use, syringe exchange, and HIV. Friedman worked with people like Don Des Jarlais, Sherry Deren, Douglas Lipton and Eloise Dunlap, and their research about drug users’ lives, drug treatment effectiveness, needle exchange and safe social practices was being emulated internationally. “We were the dominant single organization in the whole field,” Friedman said. “We had a lot of stuff going on that was cutting edge.”

But they were not, in general, timely. “Because we were a research group,” Friedman said, “we tended to start the day late.”

Being late to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 may have saved many NDRI employees’ lives.

As we mark the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I spoke with Dr. Friedman about the effects of the attacks on the NDRI’s work. While 9/11 and its subsequent war on terror have already impacted many drug studies, including those on narcoterrorism and PTSD, Friedman’s experience was the clearest connection I could find between the day’s events and their direct impact on drug research and policy. Much was destroyed when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, causing the 1,300-foot towers to collapse. This included the tragedy of more than 2,000 deaths that day. On a much smaller scale, NDRI lost years of its groundbreaking drug research studies and sensitive data.

Dr. Friedman is currently a research professor at NYU’s Department of Population Health and, from 1983 to 2019, was a top researcher at NDRI. He generously agreed to share his experience of the day with Points to help clarify the impact 9/11 had on drug researchers, research, and the field’s history.

I hope others will share their experiences, too. Since many current undergraduates were born after the events of the “Day that Changed America,” we should begin collecting our experiences of how 9/11, the war on terror, and terrorism have affected our work now, before the events fade too much further into the past. More information about this developing project is located below.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

NDRI Logo

NDRI Logo. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Emily Dufton: Tell me about the history of NDRI.

Dr. Sam Friedman: The group was set up in 1967 by the New York State Drug Agency. We were originally called the Narcotic and Drug Research Institutes. The state drug agency wanted a cheap labor farm to do research grants with federal money, where they could bring people on and off without having to worry about civil service. So they set up the NDRI as a subservient nonprofit organization, but they were basically the same. The board of the NDRI was the same leadership as the state drug agency.

How did you come to work there?

In 1983, I had been unemployed for almost a year, because sociologists were being stigmatized—victimized at that time by the Reagan administration. [laughs] I heard through Bruce Johnson about a job at NDRI. So I applied and I ended up basically being hired as a project director on Don [Des Jarlais]’s first AIDS grant. It was the first AIDS grant NIDA gave out: “Risk Factors for AIDS Among Drug Injectors.”

At that point we were in the World Trade Center too, on the sixty-seventh floor of the South Tower. Thank god that changed.

But there was some criticism of the state drug agency and other agencies being in the World Trade Center. Things about conflicts of interest, I don’t know, I wasn’t a part of it.

So you’re booted from the WTC in 1986?

Yes. After that we went to 125th Street—55 West 125th Street. It was the beginning of the crack period, way before gentrification of that part of Harlem. Out the back window we could see a crack house, and the people going in and out on 126th Street. Then it became the headquarters of the Clinton Global Initiative! [laughs]

I was working on an AIDS outreach project, leading the evaluation on it, that was with state money. And I was working on another project about an intervention to keep non-injectors from becoming injectors. A little tiny thing, a quite nice project.

Your work was becoming extremely well known. By 1990, you and Don were being called the “nation’s two most prominent researchers in the area of AIDS and intravenous drug use.”

But we didn’t want to be the only leaders. In the mid ‘80s, Don and I consciously said to each other, we’re going to train our competition, and we want to do it because we need the additional research help. So we trained people in the Netherlands, we trained Gerry Stimson and his group in London, and others. We set up an international group with WHO to introduce them to these techniques. We were glad to do it and it was wonderful for us, it was a growing experience.

But, you know, that’s the way of any field. The people who were first there have the opportunity to do wonderful things and train other people who are better than they are. It had to be done. AIDS was a world class epidemic. People are doing it now with covid.

You went back to the World Trade Center in the ‘90s?

We bounced around a lot. From Harlem we went to Beach Street, one block south of Canal, next to the Holland Tunnel. It was a very nice neighborhood in some ways. From my office I could see the Ghostbusters firehouse. Interesting neighborhood.

Our executive director had signed a contract to renew our space on Beach, but it was going to sink our budget under increasing rents. We had to leave and buy our way out.

Where was there cheap real estate? In 1993, there was a bomb in the basement in the World Trade Center. After that, space was relatively cheap! And we already knew the building. We moved to the sixteenth floor of South Tower in 1996.

What was working in the World Trade Center like?

The World Trade Center was a horrible place to work. [laughs] It had all the problems of a thirty-year-old building. The air conditioning didn’t work well. We used to call our cough from the bad air the “WTC Respiratory Disease.”

Tell me about the day. What happened on 9/11?

Remember it happened early in the morning. [The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 am. The second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03 am.] I wasn’t there at the time. I was on the way in.

Relatively few of our people were there. But those who were, they were the sixteenth floor. Our facilities manager had an office where he was facing the other tower. He heard the bang and immediately ran through the floor saying, “Get out, don’t wait for anything.”

So they ran out. One person hurt their ankle, so there was one injury. That was it.

Afterward we were trying to reconnect with each other but we had no way to do it since our email had been destroyed. We managed to do it through personal phone calls and emails over the next few days. Everyone was accounted for. Some people lost relatives.

We had a meeting at the Beth Israel auditorium that Friday. It was a very emotional meeting, obviously. But it was clear we weren’t going to have an office for god only knew how long.

How was NDRI affected?

We were lucky. The money was going to be secure, people would have their salaries. The executive director made an immediate decision to maintain paying people, even if they’re not really working. But people in field sites could work, and people like me could work out of their homes. But it was hard to get going again.

Was anything lost?

The night before, I had a lot to carry home. I have a printed version of this questionnaire we’d been working on, a lengthy questionnaire for a study in Bushwick looking at connections between youth, young adults and the drug scene and HIV risk in various ways. And at the last minute, I tossed it on my desk, saying I’m not going to work on it tonight, I’ll just leave it here.

It got destroyed of course, along with everything else.

Was that the only copy?

I thought my data analyst, like any intelligent data analyst, was taking backup home every night. He wasn’t.

Luckily I had lent a draft of it on June 30 to people who were wanting to do some similar kind of research. So we only lost the changes from June 30 to September 10. Which was a fair amount but we had a lot of it.

What were the larger effects on the NDRI?

Because of 9/11, money was thrown at the military and the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. That money had to come from somewhere. Given the nature of politics at that time, NIH’s budget was impacted. But NIDA and AIDS were still able to grow some, but less rapidly. So budget impact was the main thing.

But I didn’t understand what demoralization was going to do to productivity for the next year and a half. One project director never fully recovered during the time of that project. She was somewhat traumatized.

What about you personally?

Well, the first thing I did was get cell phones for me and my wife. And then I set up a personal email account.

But I’d been participating in demonstrations since 1957 when I first protested segregation. After the attacks, when the war machine kicked in, the immediate gut-level reaction of a large part of the people in our office was, you don’t do this to people. You don’t bomb Afghanistan. You don’t declare an unjust war.

So we NDRI people attended a lot of anti-war demonstrations over the next few years. And we were open about our experience. We’d carry signs saying “WTC Survivor Against the War.” That definitely caused some conversations.

Were you ever able to recover any of the lost material?

We did have backup of most of [the WSW research] in Boston because one of our key project members had moved to Fenway, where she was doing research, and also had set up a small satellite of this project there. So we were able to piece together most of it, but in the meanwhile we ran out of grant money to analyze it.

This was the problem for every project. We lost our office, we lost some of our research, would it disintegrate? Would it lose people? Because vultures started looking for our people. Universities, other institutes, they saw the vulnerability after the attack and might make job offers. Our key analysts might get picked off.

What caused the NDRI to dissolve in 2019?

A number of things. Federal funding for drug studies was stable, or going slightly down. Funding for AIDS was stable. But prices were going up. Salaries were going up. And competition was going up, as other places were facing the same thing. So instead of getting grants on the first submission, if you were lucky, you got them on the second. The whole thing just became much more difficult. People left for academic positions or other partially-funded positions. Finally, the group came to a close. But we had had a good run since 1967.

If you’re interested in sharing your story about the impact of 9/11 on our field, please get in touch with Emily Dufton at emily.dufton@gmail.com.

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