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The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of…

The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America's First Prison for Drug…

by Nancy D. Campbell

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The Narcotic Farm is a companion book to a PBS documentary (which I watched yesterday) of the same name.

I first heard of this book while reading Sam Quinones' Dreamland - up to then I had absolutely no clue that this place even existed. The United States Narcotic Farm opened in 1935, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky; it was, as the book notes,

"an anomaly, an institution where male and female convicts arrested for drugs did time along with volunteers who checked themselves in for treatment."

In the 1920s, increasingly-strict drug laws and "aggressive enforcement" led to addicts being sent to prison "in droves," where they proved troublesome -- bringing drugs inside and getting non-addict prisoners hooked. The authors note that by the late 1920s, about "a third of all federal prisoners were doing time on drug charges." Social progressives of the time also took issue with the arrest of addicts, believing it to be "unjust" - so in 1929 two "government bureaucrats" lobbied for a measure that would create prisons just for convicted addicts, and by 1932, the construction of first of these institutions (the other in Ft. Worth) was underway. Its administration fell under both the US Public Health Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons - and on the day it opened the first director, Dr. Lawrence Kolb stated that addicts would not be sent to prison for what was basically "a weakness," but they would be able to receive

"the best medical treatment that science can afford in an atmosphere designed to rehabilitate them spiritually, mentally, and physically."

The book and the documentary together detail the story of Narco (as it was known by the locals) from its beginning in 1935 through its final days forty years later. Some interesting highlights of its history include a few notables who passed through its doors -- both William S. Burroughs senior and junior, as well as a host of jazz musicians including Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and Sonny Rollins. Both Burroughs, father and son, wrote books about their time at Lexington: Senior in his Junkie, where there's an entire section about him signing himself in," and Junior with his Kentucky Ham (which I'm planning to read soon) detailing his time as a patient there.

Good book -- eye opening to say the least, especially when some very disturbing facts about the research going on there are revealed. ( )
1 vote bcquinnsmom | Feb 8, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0810972867, Hardcover)

From 1935 until 1975, just about every junkie busted for dope went to the Narcotic Farm. Equal parts federal prison, treatment center, farm, and research laboratory, the Farm was designed to rehabilitate addicts and help researchers discover a cure for drug addiction. Although it began as a bold and ambitious public works project, and became famous as a rehabilitation center frequented by great jazz musicians among others, the Farm was shut down forty years after it opened amid scandal over its drug-testing program, which involved experiments where inmates were being used as human guinea pigs and rewarded with heroin and cocaine for their efforts.


Published to coincide with a documentary to be aired on PBS, The Narcotic Farm includes rare and unpublished photographs, film stills, newspaper and magazine clippings, government documents, as well as interviews, writings, and anecdotes from the prisoners, doctors, and guards that trace the Farm’s noble rise and tumultuous fall, revealing the compelling story of what really happened inside the prison walls.


The Narcotic Farm is a beautiful, fascinating book that takes readers deep into a forgotten American institution. The pictures are remarkable and the story brings an important moment in history vividly to life. It’s a stunning work.
Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps
The story of America’s long and deep affair with addictive drugs is incomplete without mention of the legendary federal narcotic hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. The Narcotic Farm tells this story well, and in addition provides a wealth of revealing photographs and documents that speak volumes on what it was like to be a junkie in the mid-twentieth century.
Luc Sante, author of Low Life and Evidence
The Narcotic Farm
works its magic by recapturing, in images and words, the lost world of “Narco,” the sprawling federal prison-hospital for drug addicts in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s the details that get you, from the disheveled misery of withdrawal to the uninhibited joy of performing in the house jazz band.
David Courtwright, author of Dark Paradise, Addicts Who Survived, and Forces of Habit

Everyone who cares about addiction and recovery in this country should look at these pictures and read this text.
Susan Cheever, author of My Name is Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous and Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction

“The 'Narco,' with its combination of prison and hospital, drug experimentation and drug cure, total institution and farm, exemplified the contradictions of American drug policy.  The authors are to be commended for their accessible text and high-quality images that vividly convey the history of the Narcotics Farm from the high hopes of its birth to its evolution into a "fraternity for drug addicts."–Eric Schneider - "Smack: Heroin and the American City," University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:02 -0400)

"From its opening in 1935. the United States Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, epitomized the nation's ambivalence about how to deal with drug addiction. On the one hand, it functioned as a compassionate and humane hospital, an "asylum on the hill" on 1,000 acres of farmland where addicts could recover from their drug habits. On the other hand, it was an imposing federal prison built for the incarceration of drug addicts." ""Narco," as it was known, was a strange anomaly, a coed institution where federal convicts did time alongside volunteers who checked themselves in for rehabilitation. It became the world's epicenter for drug treatment and addiction research. For forty years it was the gathering place for this country's growing drug subculture, a rite of passage that initiated famous jazz musicians, drug-abusing MDs, street hustlers, and drugstore cowboys into the new fraternal order of the American junkie." "The Narcotic Farm tells the story of the institution's noble rise and tumultuous fall, and includes rare and unpublished photographs, film stills, newspaper and magazine clippings, government documents, as well as recollections from the prisoners, doctors, and staff who lived and worked there."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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