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Addiction Treatment in America throughout History


Approximately ten percent of the human population is addicted to mind-altering substances. Most of these people cannot stop using on their own and need help. Since the birth of America as a colony, addicts have sought help to stop using through various treatment methods, and some have remained viable for centuries.

The first known self-help groups in America were conducted by Native Americans, who had been living on American soil for thousands of years prior to white settlement. Europeans brought a flurry of new ideas, technology, and culture with them to the new world. Unfortunately, these settlers also brought alcohol with them. The introduction of colonists and their alcohol in the lives of Native Americans proved to be devastating. Today, some theories suggest Native American people are genetically susceptible to addiction. Others say the oppression and devastation brought on the native people may have drove them to drink. There are dozens of possible reasons as to why these Native Americans took a greater liking to alcohol than other populations; the truth is nobody will ever know exactly why.

What is known is that Native Americans needed some form of treatment for their alcoholism. During the early 1800’s, tribes in the state of Delaware were conducting what has been termed “sobriety circles”. The most striking thing about these sobriety circles is the extreme similarity they have with Alcoholics Anonymous, which is the cornerstone of addiction treatment throughout the world. This is impressive because the program of AA was founded nearly one-hundred-fifty years after Native American sobriety circles took place.

Sobriety circles were conducted by tribal leaders who had endured the throws of alcoholism themselves, much similar to the “trusted servants” who guide AA. These tribal leaders would then share their experience with alcohol addiction and teach others how to beat alcoholism, just as they had. These such self-help groups, where one alcoholic helps another, are still considered the best long term treatment for addiction. The method is which tribal leaders guided their people in sobriety directly coincides with concept of sponsorship in AA. This is where a sponsor, a recovering alcoholic themselves, helps a newcomer along the path toward recovery. Sponsors show the newcomer what they did in order to stay sober, along with the help of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Tribal leaders encouraged recovering alcoholics to get in touch with their ancestral heritage and beliefs that they may have lost in their addiction. The sobriety circles understood that an alcoholic needs something bigger to believe in to achieve sobriety, and the Native Americans already had an ancestral belief system so this seemed to be the obvious choice. Similarly, the notion of a “higher power” is vital to the program of AA, though  in a bit broader sense where the alcoholic is suggested to find a higher power of their own understanding. Remarkably, both these self-help groups understood the Alcoholic needs something to believe in. Whatever this belief is, wherever it may come from, doesn’t necessarily matter; it just has to be something..

In 1849 a Swedish physician named Magnus Huss coined the term alcoholism, naming the sickness “Alcoholismus Chronicus”. Approximately ten years later the first inebriate asylum was opened in America, specifically to treat the alcoholic. An ancillary benefit of these asylums was that they removed the alcoholic from society for the time being. This could, at a minimum, put a stop to their problematic behavior and their tax on society.

The first of these programs, dubbed the New York State Inebriate Asylum, was located in Binghamton, New York. The state ran this hospital as a service to the people. As one can imagine, the conditions of this place were not the most luxurious, but at this time it was the only option for suffering alcoholics. In 1901 a second option surfaced for those who could afford it. This was the Charles B. Towns Hospital located at 293 Central Park West in Manhattan. This marked the first privatized treatment facility for alcoholism in America. The hospital focused on detox and treatment for alcoholics, however only the wealthy could afford to be at the facility.

Tens of thousands of men and women were sent to the United States Narcotic Farm for rehabilitation over its 40-year existence. Photo Courtesy of University of Kentucky Archives

If you were a drug addict and convicted of a drug-related offense between the years of 1935 and 1975, chances are you may have been sent to the United States Narcotics Farm, located in Lexington, Kentucky. This institution was the first of its kind, as those sentenced to the U.S. Narcotics farm  were exclusively prisoners who were also addicts. The most remarkable thing about this facility is that, due to the very fact it needed to be in existence in order to imprison and treat drug addicts, it increased awareness in America that addiction is a disease. Realizing that addiction is a disease meant that even those who had committed crimes due to the disease needed treatment, and not just prison time.

William S. Burroughs, an iconic writer of the beat generation and severe opiate addict, even spent time at this institution. Burroughs, a man not afraid to speak his mind and go against the grain, praised the United States Narcotics Farm for their great work with addicts. While the institution did many great things, the United States Narcotics Farm concluded with a black mark on its record. This is due to the fact that, throughout its existence, the institution was secretly (or not so secretly) receiving money from the C.I.A. to conduct experiments on inmates. The C.I.A wanted to find out whether LSD could be used as a mind control drug or truth serum. The United States Narcotics Farm was closed in 1975 when the federal government decided that facilities of its kind should be decentralized and run by the individual states in which they resided..  The facility is now home to a hospital which treats federal inmates suffering from physical ailments.

By the time The Hazelden Foundation was opened in 1949 it was understood that the most viable and successful option for maintaining long term sobriety was with the help of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hazelden, located in Center City, Minnesota, is one of the oldest and most prestigious addiction treatment centers in America. Veering away from the asylum concept which had plagued treatment centers for so long, Hazelden was the first treatment center to base their program on the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Nearly all treatment centers in America do this today, and since Hazelden pioneered this idea, using the twelve-step model is known as“the Minnesota model” for Hazeldens location in Minnesota.

Years after she addressed the nation about her own struggles and successes with addiction, former first lady Betty Ford was integral in opening the Betty Ford Center. Opened in 1982, The Betty Ford Center is located in Rancho Mirage, California. A twelve-step and therapy based program, the center can house up to 100 patients suffering from addiction to alcohol and narcotics. This institution has grown to become a one of the leading treatment facilities across America, helping thousands of people every year.

Treatment has certainly come a long way since the days of inebriate asylums and “loony bins”. It has come full circle. Native Americans in the 1800’s probably shared the same exact experiences and struggles in their sobriety circles that are discussed in the modern treatment facilities of our time. Addiction is a chronic and deadly disease that cannot be cured, only arrested with support and treatment. It is older than America itself, and it is a beautiful thing that we live in an era where addiction is better understood and can be treated effectively.




Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior. History of Treatment in the United States. 2001. Tuesday September 2013 <>.

Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Drug Addiction and Drug Abuse. 2012. Tuesday september 2013 <>.

White, William. Recovery in America. 1998. Tuesday September 2013 < >.


Filed under: Addiction, Alcohol and Drugs, Recovery, Research, Spirituality · Tags: AA, addict, Addiction, Alcohol and Drugs, alcoholic, Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism, America, American History, asylum, Betty Ford Treatment Center, Colonial America, drug addict, drug addiction, Hazelden, History, institutions, Native American, prisoner, Recovery, rehab, sobriety, sobriety circles, sponsor, Treatment, United States Narcotics Farm

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