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Nov 5, 2009

Interview: J P Olsen and Luke Walden

by Katerina Vlckova

The Narcotic Farm

Kate Vlckova talks to J P Olsen and Luke Walden about their film ‘The Narcotic Farm’.

Kate Vlckova: The film uses unique government archives, captivating music and interviews that make the story very vivid – how long did the research last? Have you encountered any challenges trying to get hold of some of the footage?

JP Olsen: Luke and I spent two and a half years, off and on, researching “The Narcotic Farm,“ finding photos and documents and film. When we started there was no central archive to go to, everything was scattered all over the U.S. among dozens of different public and private archives. We got material from people who worked there or were imprisoned there and we also found rare material at the Kentucky Historical Society, which, incidentally, told me they never had anyone ask for the Narcotic Farm’s archive, even though they’d had it sitting there for two decades. The biggest challenge by far was getting the films of human experimentation that went on at the prison.

KV: Why return to this subject 34 years after the Narcotic Farm was shut? What inspired you to make a film and write a book about it?

JP Olsen: Several years ago I worked on a documentary on drug abuse and my research included interviewing long-time methadone patients. A few people I interviewed were in their late 60s and early 70s. In every case these old-timers either knew about or had spent time at Lexington. I didn’t know what Lexington was at first, but one guy in particular talked about what a great place it was with this great jazz band and how LSD was tested there and how you could get free heroin and that people were put to work on this big, beautiful farm to milk cows and so on. I thought, well, if he’s telling me the truth, this is an incredible American story and I’ve just got to do this. I felt very passionate about saving this story because it was clear to me that this project would be centered around a population that was dying off, and dying off very quickly. And, in speaking with people at these clinics, frankly, I liked them. They were all characters. The book came about completely by accident. Wayne Kramer’s wife – Wayne is our film’s composer and narrator as well as a former inmate – saw the photos that Luke and I were collecting for our research and said we should try to get a book contract. She put me touch with a book agent, I wrote up a proposal, and to my surprise he told me he could sell it. And then, to my amazement, he sold it. But that excitement wore off quickly when we had to figure out how to make a film and write a book at the same time. That’s when Luke and I called historian of science Dr. Nancy Campbell for help because she knows as much as anyone on the planet about Lexington.

KV: One of the former inmates featured in the documentary mentions the shock of coming to a farm from New York City. Why did the authorities consider treatment at a farm to be effective?

Luke Walden: The Narcotic Farm’s founding precept in 1935 — that farm work could cure drug addiction — illustrates how little was known about addiction in the early 20th century. The idea was a vestige of a 19th century medical theory called moral therapy, which was motivated by an agrarian nostalgia that concluded that “urban“ diseases such as tuberculosis, mental illness, and addiction would be cured by convalescence in a healthful, rural setting. The idea at ‘Narco’ was that fresh air and sunshine would reinvigorate addicts, farming the institution‘s 1,000 acres would teach the virtue of hard work, and this newfound work ethic would sustain abstinence from drugs. By the early 1950s it was obvious farm work didn’t cure drug addiction. But the farm continued to be part of the institution, providing inmates with healthy food and exercise that helped return them to physical health even as it failed to improve their prospects of staying clean permanently.

KV: According to the film prisoners volunteered to participate in the drug research programme – was there any cases of forced participation?

JP Olsen: The short answer is no. I never heard anything like that from former prisoners. These were hard-core junkies and the idea of getting free drugs was a dream come true, so I don’t think any arms were twisted to get people to sign up. There were enticements. You got better food, your own room, a television, that kind of thing. But all signs, including internal documents on the patients in the drug program, pointed toward free drugs as the prime motivation. Also, more than a few inmates felt that being in the program was a way of getting one over on the government for locking them up in the first place. That came up a few times. Today, of course, we look at this issue all very differently. But the practice of giving addicts drugs for research exists in the U.S. today, right now. I know of one program in Manhattan that gives out free crack. To me the only fundamental difference between that practice and Lexington is that people who volunteer for these crack studies are not in prison, but walking around freely, doing this on their own accord. That’s considered ethical now because a cure for crack addiction could really help people out, so that’s the deal society is willing to make for now. But who knows whether this will be considered ethical in 25 or 50 years? I think ethics are a moving target, and that’s part of why we made the film the way we did. We wanted it to exist as a record of its time, not a comment on the time. Luke often said our film would be used as text that would help generate discussion about research ethics. I really hope that’s the case.

KV: Why did recovered addicts volunteer in experiments which would put them back into the misery they know so well? What was their reward in return for the participation?

Luke Walden: Overall the reputation of the research program among the inmates at Lexington was very positive. Bernie Kolb, a volunteer patient we interviewed who worked as an aide in the drug research center remembers the researchers as caring and committed; “I liked it there because the doctors were trying to help addicts. My feeling about them was that they really came there to do some good.” Regardless of the researchers‘ intentions, however, is it undeniable that the primary motivation for participation was, as former test subject Edward Flowers remembers, “to get some drugs.” So there was always a long list of inmates eager to get high on narcotics for the duration of a research study, whether that was one day or one whole year. An added bonus was that until 1955 research subjects were paid for their participation in extra doses of their favorite drug. This is one practice that really got the institution in hot water when it was re-examined in the 1970s.

KV: Major US papers covered the research in Lexington from the 1930s onwards, yet no-one questioned whether drug testing on human guinea pigs was unethical. Why was so?

JP Olsen: I think the simplest way to explain why the media didn’t question Lexington in a negative way is that it wasn’t considered unethical to use prisoners for research until – at least – the mid-1960s. That’s not to say that somebody, somewhere wasn’t wondering to themselves about whether this was ethical or not. But neither Luke nor I ever ran across anything like that among the hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories we read during our research. And it’s clear that doctors did have ethical guidelines, so they did think about it, they just didn’t think about it in the way we do know. To get a sense of how differently people thought about giving drugs to drug addicts, in the 1930s and 40s Lexington only allowed white people in the program because the drug program was seen as a good thing, a desirable thing that should be afforded to whites only. That, I think, underscores just how differently this was thought of back then. I think the turning point in the thinking about research ethics in the US began to change in 1966 when a social worker named Peter Buxton questioned the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. In my opinion, and this is the opinion of some others who have looked at this, Buxton brought into question the whole way the U.S. Public Health Service did business then, particularly how it relates to what are now considered vulnerable populations such as prison inmates. That’s when changes in ethical thinking started happening around this issue. And of course, we’re talking about the late 1960s in America when many were rethinking basic assumptions about our society and openly challenging them.

Luke Walden: Medical research on prisoners was legal and common across America in the 1930s through the 1960s. At that time a common attitude held even by some prisoners was that by participating in research inmates were making a noble self-sacrifice, a repayment of their “debt to society.” This was especially true in the case of research that was obviously for the public good, such as research on malaria conducted on inmates in other prisons in the 1940s. For the doctors at Lexington, and evidently for the public at large, the quest to solve the puzzle of drug addiction was in the same category. The research was considered a worthwhile endeavor and the inmates participation as guinea pigs was considered a worthwhile sacrifice because it was unquestionably for the public good and would also eventually be for the good of the specific population involved — drug addicts themselves.

Essentially what we’re dealing with here is a story with no real bad guy, and to me it’s a really interesting example of the historical contingency of ethics in general. We’ve decided now that the practices of the ARC would be unethical today, and research on federal prisoners is no longer allowed. So in retrospect the ARC’s practices seem like they were unethical all along. But in fact, the ethical climate was so different then, and the program seemed to make so much sense to so many people, that even many of the former inmates of Lexington whom we interviewed still have no ethical problem with what went on there. So my view is that while we are glad this kind of research no longer happens in prisons it’s pretty hard to be too critical of the doctors who carried it out fifty years ago.

KV: The Narcotic Farm became a true meeting point for a number of great musicians. Is it true that some people not addicted to drugs volunteered to go to the Narco Farm just to be able to play and practise with top-class jazz artists?

JP Olsen: I first heard that from Phil Schaap, a very informed jazz radio host in New York who grew up with jazz musicians all around him. He spoke at length about this. He told me stories about people going there for exactly that reason. I heard these kinds of things from jazz musicians too, that people in the jazz life would show up at Lexington, some hoping to kick, some just looking for a bed, many of them expecting – deluded in their thinking or not – to sit in with one of the greatest jazz bands in the world at the time.

KV: Were there any positive outcomes of the research?

Luke Walden: Over its 40 years the Addiction Research Center at Lexington advanced major fundamental discoveries about the biology, psychology and pharmacology of addiction and addictive drugs. Researchers developed methods to measure the severity of drug dependence and the intensity of drug withdrawal. They theorized the existence of opiate receptors that heroin and morphine stimulate in the brain. They also put forth a theory of cues and conditioning to explain why relapse is so common among recovering addicts, a theory now integral in drug treatment programs. The research center demonstrated – for the first time – that alcohol withdrawal was a genuine physical condition and not a psychological delusion. They proved that barbiturates, once prescribed with little concern over their safety, were highly addictive and have a dangerous withdrawal syndrome and successfully recommended controls for medications that would have clearly caused widespread addiction and abuse if released on an unsuspecting public. In the mid-1970s, shortly before the lab was closed, Lexington’s drug research lab also pioneered buprenorphine, the current great pharmacologic hope to treat opiate addiction medically. But among the lab’s most important contributions is the idea that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. This was the reigning philosophy among Lexington’s researchers long before it became the accepted belief that it is today, at least in the US.

KV: How far has the understanding and research into drug addiction progressed since the Narcotic Farm closed in 1975?

Luke Walden: It’s difficult to assess and different people will give different answers. Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the U.S., might say that with current advances in brain imaging and the science of genetics a biological cure for addiction is within reach. Former head of NIDA, Robert DuPont, on the other hand, thinks the government has been throwing money at researching this problem for 70 years and we still have no cure for addiction. The current NIDA budget is over a billion dollars per year and the obvious question to be asked is whether a billion dollars a year is money well spent or whether that money might not do more good if it went to woefully under-funded treatment programs that have already demonstrated success, such as 12-step programs. The obvious rebuttal to that question is that the research, including Lexington’s research, is what has yielded the detailed scientific understanding of addiction we have today, which is a long way from the fantasy that farm work can cure drug addiction.

KV: It may seem that one of the main reasons for the closure of the Narcotic Farm was triggered by the controversial LSD study between 1932 and 1972 on African-Americans suffering from syphilis. Was this the principle reason for closing it?

JP Olsen: I think more than anything Lexington closed because it cost a lot to operate and its “cure“ rate was poor. So the question became, why are we keeping this open? It costs a lot to operate, it’s not working that well, and other forms of treatment – methadone and therapeutic communities in particular – are doing as well or better in keeping people off heroin and doing it for much less. Also, culturally, by the late 1960s Lexington was totally out of touch with what was going on in terms of drug treatment. They were the old guard and they had old guard views, including the fact that they fought against federally funded methadone maintenance despite the fact they pioneered the use of methadone for detox. That’s part of it. They were old and in the way in the eyes of the new guard. But there is no doubt – despite what some from the institution will tell you even now – that the revelations of CIA money flowing through Lexington to test LSD on inmates to find who-knows-what, hurt the institution deeply. It hurt their standing in the eyes of their contemporaries.

Luke Walden: Just to clarify, the drug research at The Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which took place 500 miles away in Alabama, were completely separate and unrelated research projects. The one thing they have in common is that they were both conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service. The similarities stop there, at least in our opinion. But these two things were joined in the public mind in large part because that’s the way the media portrayed Lexington when news about the CIA connection broke in 1975.

KV: The film appeared in TV stations across America since November 2008. What has been the response so far?

Luke Walden: By far the most impassioned response has been from people who are either in recovery from addiction themselves, have a friend or family member in recovery or who work as professionals in addiction treatment. In the US this is actually a very large population. We’ve shown the film in prisons and film festivals and colleges and on American TV and the general response is, “I can’t believe I’ve never heard about this place.“ Many former addicts have told us that they are grateful for the objective and sensitive way we portray the addicts in the film, neither as blameless victims nor monstrous dope fiends.
Several former inmates and staff members at the institution have gotten in touch to let us know that we got the story right, which is gratifying especially as getting it right meant taking a stand for historical objectivity that has been challenging for some. I think many people – including us as we began our research – might hear the broad outlines of the story and assume that the film will have a clearly critical point of view about the research program. However what we actually learned in our research simply didn’t justify that approach and so we decided to present the story as an objective history rather than an expose’. We want to leave it up to viewers to debate the ethics and reach their own conclusions. This approach has had its detractors. One public television programmer in the US told us that the film was “too balanced and objective for public TV.” We are glad it was aired nationally anyway and that we’ve had a chance to show it in London at LIDF and Raindance film festivals and are especially honored to have it shown at The Barbican.
The film will screen at the Radar Hamburg Film Festival in the first week of November and we hope to continue to get it out to audiences across Europe.

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