Framing Addiction: Heroin Then and Now

At a press conference on June 17, 1971 then President Richard Nixon informed his constituents of a troubling menace. “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.” Nixon also labeled those associated with drug abuse primary enemies of the state. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy,” Nixon charged, “it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Sadly, this all-out offensive has been in full bloom under the modern War on Drugs while drug abuse—keeping in step—has also flourished.nixon declaring wod

Earlier that afternoon Nixon gave a special message to Congress, providing more details regarding the scope of the problem. Declaring the “tide of drug abuse” a “national emergency,” Nixon reminded Congress that, “narcotic addiction is a major contributor to crime.” Nixon continued, establishing what is now an oversimplified, rarely analyzed cultural truth: “Narcotic addicts do not ordinarily hold jobs. Instead, they often turn to shoplifting, mugging, burglary, armed robbery, and so on. They also support themselves by starting other people-young people-on drugs.” The addict, and the peddler—often doubling as the same shadowy figure—became cemented as cultural boogeymen. Addicts were either hooking our youth on dangerous drugs or committing other crimes to cop.  Addicts, not society, caused the problem and bore the threat to public safety. Despite his well-documented fiscal commitment to rehabilitation efforts, Nixon’s public rhetoric designed to sway silent majority voters advanced the march towards an ethos of punishment and condemnation. For example, in his same message to Congress, Nixon asked for additional funds to support enforcement efforts “to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers.”  To borrow from our Managing Editor Emily Dufton, Nixon, “transformed the public image of the drug user into one of a dangerous and anarchic threat to American civilization.”

"They bought it."

“They bought it.”

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Setting the Record Straight, Part 2

Editor’s note: Today guest blogger Marcus Chatfield continues his series on Straight, Inc. and the research it used to burnish its reputation in the 1980s.

As part of my research I sent a questionnaire to 12 former clients of Straight, some of whom I was in treatment with. My purpose was to collect testimony that would help explain the findings of Friedman et al., and to help raise awareness about the abuses that went on in Straight. I asked participants to reflect on their experiences in Straight and compare their current perspective with their perspective immediately following treatment. Their reports also included descriptions of broken relationships with parents, intensified drug use in the first few years after graduation, and long-term trauma resulting from coerced participation in the program. All of the participants reported being “extremely dissatisfied” now but most reported high levels of satisfaction with their treatment during the time soon after their release. As one former staff member responded, “my answers to these questions are completely different than they would have been immediately after completing aftercare because I was still brainwashed by Straight’s doctrine well beyond my involvement with Straight.”

Large group therapy

“Large group therapy process” (Straight brochure)

The only peer-reviewed research specific to clients of Straight was conducted by Straight’s own Medical Director, Richard Schwartz. Looking at the history of the program, it appears that this research began during a financially critical time. Continue reading →

Setting the Record Straight: Part 1

Editor’s Note: Points is pleased to introduce a new guest blogger today. Marcus Chatfield is currently writing a book about coercive therapy in the “troubled-teen industry,” based on research he has conducted as a student at Goddard College. A client of Straight, Incorporated from 1985-1987, he is associate producer of the upcoming documentary film, Surviving Straight Inc. Marcus’s five-part weekly series for Points focuses on the research that enabled this program to win the trust of families, media, and high-ranking officials during its operations in nine states between 1976 and 1993.

“The problem, of course is that Straight really does not know what happens to a good many of its graduates. And it will be criticized for this in the future.” Andrew I. and Barbara E. Malcolm, report to the White House drug czar, 1981.

Straight building 1

The building that housed the Straight Inc. program in Springfield, Virginia.

Straight Incorporated is one of the most infamous adolescent treatment programs in the history of America’s War on Drugs. Straight was an intervention and prevention program, established in 1976 with a federal grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Agency (LEAA). The LEAA funded hundreds of behavior-modification programs in America and many of them were found to be dramatically unethical. The coercive methods that were used at Straight were not only ineffective, but quite harmful for a large percentage of clients. This essay is a critical examination of an article published in 1989 by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (JSAT), entitled “Outcome of a Unique Youth Drug Abuse Program: A Follow-up Study of Clients of Straight Inc.” Authors Alfred S. Friedman, Richard Schwartz, and Arlene Utada claimed that Straight was highly effective at reducing drug use and that 70% of the former clients from the Springfield, Virginia facility were “satisfied” with their treatment. Program executives presented this statistic to parents and the media as scientific proof that Straight worked.

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