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Lessons from The Narcotic Farm, Part One

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today, Points begins a series of reflections on the Lexington Narcotic Hospital, from Luke Walden, JP Olsen, and Nancy Campbell.  Walden is a documentary filmmaker, Olsen a journalist (and documentarian), and Campbell a historian (and Contributing Editor to Points).  Olsen brought Walden into the development of his film, The Narcotic Farm, and along the way the two began collaborating with Campbell as well–ultimately producing not only the film, but an accompanying book.  As with any such project, there is plenty of material left on the cutting room floor, and we are delighted that they have decided to share some of that with us here at Points.  Look for more posts on Lexington over the coming months.

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Century of Progress Farm. Bluegrass Retreat for America’s Suffering Mankind. Helping Humanity Home. World’s Restoration Hospital. Federal Institution for Incorrigibles. U.S. Torpor Institution. Your Boy and Mine. Narcomania.

These were some of nearly 800 submissions to a Lexington, KY newspaper’s 1935 contest to name a massive federal edifice growing in the farmland outside town.  From the fanciful to the prosaic, the names embodied the national hope, idealism, desperation and confusion that attended the founding of the first United States Narcotic Farm. The dominant attitude about the $4 million asylum on a thousand acres of rich farmland was optimistic, progressive, even utopian.  It would not just be a prison for drug addicts it would also save them.

Atlanta Georgian: The Light of a New Day
Lexington Narcotic Hospital, 1935 (University of Kentucky Archives)

Lexington Narcotic Hospital, 1935 (University of Kentucky Archives)

Three in One Drug Farm. Federal Correction Farm. Federal Curative Farm. U.S. Research Farm.

The Narcotic Farm was both a prison and a hospital. It was created by Congress with the triple mission of incarcerating, rehabilitating and studying drug addicts. The institution itself embodied what psychiatrist David Deitch (himself a former patient at Lexington) has described as “America’s schizophrenia about how to deal with addiction – is it a criminal problem, is it a medical problem, what is it ?” The attempt to answer that question led to the institution’s most lasting legacy, forty years of pioneering basic research into the pharmacology and psychology of addiction. Narco’s laboratory was ground zero for the creation of both the brand new field of addiction science and the first generations of influential experts in that field.

Excerpt from Bridge From No Place (late 1960s), narrated by Rod Steiger, about the Addiction Research Center at Lexington (courtesy National Archives).

U.S. Agricultural Hospital. Sure Cure Farm. Bluegrass Paradise of Health.

The first lesson that everyone can immediately glean from the history of “Lex” is that farm work doesn’t cure drug addiction.  But this was not obvious at the time.  In fact, the location of the hospital on a self-sufficient farm in a rural environment was a key feature of its design.  Agricultural labor was considered integral to “the Cure,” along with training in the trades, recreational sports competition, art therapy and musical practice.  All of these sought to retrain the addict in the normative societal values of hard work, fair play, team spirit and constructive creativity.  With these skills and attitudes under his belt, so the theory went, a “Cured” addict could return to his home city equipped to thrive and contribute without drugs.

Lexington's Farm

Lexington’s Farm in the 1950s (courtesy Robert Maclin)

Intoxicatus Farm. Lazy Bones.

Another lesson that seems obvious now is that a prison/hospital is still a prison and that incarcerating addicted convicts together in one place will have unintended consequences. In its own time, by the mid 1950s, Narco had become notorious as the meeting lodge of a new fraternity, the rapidly growing subculture of the American junkie. It was also one of the only drug treatment centers available in the entire country and thousands of volunteers checked themselves into the prison to “take the Cure” alongside the convicts. It became a destination, a rite of passage where addicted men and women of all ages and social backgrounds came together to share drug lore and lingo.  As William Burroughs, Sr., wrote of his time there, most patients were not actually interested in going straight but were merely playing the system for their own ends.  The institution also became a hotbed of jazz as all-star junkie jazz bands coalesced in the hospital’s music therapy program.  Elvin Jones, Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Chet Baker– the list of jazz greats who spent time at Narco is long and distinguished.

Jazz concert and dance performance by patient-inmates (courtesy Robert Maclin)

Mystery Farm. Arcadia. U.S. Greatest Gift to Lift Mankind Sanatorium. Alpha Government Home.

When we began researching the history of the Narcotic Farm, it was an enigma that drew us in for differing reasons. JP Olsen, a journalist by training, became fascinated by the tales of great jazz, human drug testing and the CIA that he heard from old timers in methadone clinics while conducting research for Frontline’s The Drug Wars. JP invited me, a documentary filmmaker and freelancer, to shoot interviews and edit the fundraising trailer for his film, The Narcotic Farm. Soon enough, I, too, was hooked.

Meanwhile, Nancy Campbell, a historian of science at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute was deep into research for her book Discovering Addiction, which delves with scholarly detail into the practices of the Addiction Research Center at Lexington. JP and I interviewed Nancy for our film. She became our connection for historical detail about the science and the intentions of the research program. We became hers for visual archival materials and for the anecdotal experiences of the inmates. When JP scored a deal to publish a book of archival photographs of the institution, we invited Nancy to go in on it and write the text with us. Making this history had brought together the three of us Narco-junkies the way Narco itself brought together junkies from different walks of life.

The Narcotic Farm embodies key themes in the larger history of drugs, addiction, and drug policy in mid-20th century America. Sharing that history has become a consuming passion for all three of us — we became its pushers.  Now, almost 40 years after Narco’s closure as a drug prison we look forward to considering the lessons that it might yield.  And we look forward to sharing details from the archives that never made it into print. Details like the names that did not make the cut, such as: Narcotic Nemesis Hospital of U.S.  I Will Control Farm. Dewdrop Farm. Balm of the Bluegrass. Invalid Cozy Corner. Home Sweet Hospital.

Welcome to the Narcotic Farm.

Welcome to the Narcotic Farm

Lexington 1935 (courtesy University of Kentucky)

— Luke Walden


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