Our current devastating opioid crisis is unprecedented in its reach and deadliness, but it’s not the first such epidemic the United States has experienced or tried to treat. In fact, it’s the third.
Treating America’s Opioid Addiction is a three-part series that investigates how we’ve understood and treated opioid addiction over more than a century. Through the years we’ve categorized opioid addiction as some combination of a moral failure, a mental illness, a biological disease, or a crime. And though we’ve desperately wanted the problem to be something science alone can solve, the more we look, the more complicated we learn it is.
Part 2 focuses on a controversial rehabilitation program called Synanon, which became the first significant therapeutic community for opioid addiction. From the time it opened its doors in 1958, it seemed to do what no other hospital, prison, or sanitarium had done before: cure the supposedly incurable heroin addict. But over the years its changing methods became increasingly questionable, and the controversy would ultimately lead to its demise. Despite its faults Synanon had a profound influence on subsequent generations of drug treatment programs—many of which still exist today.
Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Reporter: Mariel Carr with additional reporting by Meir Rinde
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: James Morrison
Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin
Our theme music was composed by Zach Young.
Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network.
Claire Clark, author of The Recovery Revolution: The Battle over Addiction Treatment in the United States.
Nancy Campbell, historian and director of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
John Stallone, former Synanon member.
David Deitch, former Synanon member, clinical and social psychologist, and emeritus professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
Claire Clark. The Recovery Revolution: The Battle over Addiction Treatment in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Synanon Foundation records, Online Archive of California, oac.cdlib.org/.
Synanon Foundation Oral Histories, UCLA Library, Center for Oral History Research, Los Angeles.
David Deitch. “Conversation with David Deitch.” Addiction X (May 3, 2002), 791-800.
Hillel Aron. “The Story of This Drug-Rehab-Turned-Violent Cult Is Wild, Wild, Country-Caliber Bizarre.” Los Angeles Magazine, April 23, 2018.
Matt Novak. “Synanon’s Sober Utopia: How a Drug Rehab Program Became a Violent Cult.” Gizmodo, Paleofuture, April 15, 2014.
Film excerpts from:
The Distant Drummer: Flower of Darkness. Washington, DC: Airlie Foundation and George Washington University Department of Medical and Public Affairs, 1972.
David, 1961, Drew Associates.
Instant Guide to Synanon: A Compilation of the Most Frequently Asked Questions about Our Foundation. Synanon, 1973.
The House on the Beach. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1965. YouTube, posted on February 29, 2008.
Synanon. Richard Quine, director. Columbia Pictures, 1965.