What Can A Forgotten Piece of Our Opioid Addiction and Treatment History Teach Us?

What Can A Forgotten Piece of Our Opioid Addiction and Treatment History Teach Us? What Can A Forgotten Piece of Our Opioid Addiction and Treatment History Teach Us?

March 23, 20212 min read
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As the nation struggles with the third wave of a continuing opioid epidemic, a newly republished book co-authored by Nancy Campbell, the head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, offers insight into present-day drug addiction and treatment by exploring a complex chapter from the nation’s past.


Written with JP Olsen and Luke Walden, The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts details the history of the United States Narcotic Farm, a federal institution that opened in 1935 outside of Lexington, Kentucky. Jointly operated from 1935 to 1975 by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Narcotic Farm was a combination prison, hospital, working farm, rehabilitation center, and research laboratory.


“All of our scientific knowledge about human opioid addiction comes from that time, comes from that place,” said Campbell, a leading figure in the social history of drugs, drug policy, and harm reduction, on an episode of the Landmark Recovery Radio podcast.


The facility, which was also the subject of a 2009 documentary featuring Campbell, has a complicated legacy. It revolutionized treatment methods commonly accepted today, such as using methadone to medically manage heroin detox and the development of drugs like naloxone and buprenorphine. But it fell under a cloud of suspicion in 1975, when Congress learned that researchers had recruited patients as test subjects for CIA-funded LSD experiments as part of the notorious MK-Ultra project.


“With the ongoing opioid epidemic worsening this past year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons learned in this book continue to be relevant today,” Campbell said.


Campbell is also the author of Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice and Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research, as well as the co-author of Gendering Addiction: The Politics of Drug Treatment in a Neurochemical World. Her most recent book, OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose, was published in 2020.


“Nobody should die of overdose. A high overdose death rate signals that we have not cared for the people who have been hurt most by the war on drugs, first pursued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954,” Campbell said in a recent “Academic Minute” segment.


Campbell is available to discuss a wide range of topics relating to drug policy and history, including the Narcotic Farm.



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  • Nancy D. Campbell
    Nancy D. Campbell Professor and Department Head, Science and Technology Studies (STS)

    Focuses on the history of science, technology, and medicine as it relates to drug policy and the social significance of drugs

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