Book Review: The Narcotic Farm

Nancy Campbell documents the rise and fall of “Narco,” America’s first prison for drug addicts.

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Unfortunately for the screenwriters in Judd Apatow’s shop, the United States Narcotic Farm was not a place where the government grew pot and poppies. Rather, it was a joint venture of the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Prisons, a huge, vaguely art-deco building near Lexington, Kentucky, where, from 1935 to 1975, convicted drug addicts could get a new deal: Serve out your time on this 1,000-acre spread, the feds promised, and we will set you free from your jones and not treat you like dirt. Soon, addicts were asking judges to send them away for the six-month cure at “Narco.” Notable inmates included William S. Burroughs and Sonny Rollins.

The Narcotic Farm shows how Narco was instrumental in convincing the American public that addicts needed doctors more than they needed jailers. But it was the early days of the medical model: Narco graduates had a 93 percent relapse rate, and for decades patients were used as guinea pigs for drugs like methadone and lsd (the latter under the hidden auspices of the cia).

Its text interspersed with hundreds of photographs, the book keeps one eye on the details of daily life—haircuts and manicures, farmwork, golf, and music—and another on the befuddlements of American drug policy embodied by the farm. The farm’s doctors had a more humane approach to human weakness than cops did, but both shared the flawed assumption that allows the war on drugs to continue: that America can be drug free. (A companion documentary airs on pbs in November.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review listed Billie Holiday as a Narcotic Farm inmate, as per the publisher’s press release. Mother Jones regrets the error.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate