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Review: 'The Narcotic Farm' explores early days of drug war – with a captive test audience

The text of The Narcotic Farm is informative and even-handed, but the pictures leave the deepest impression, starting with the inside cover, a spread of "works," the needle-and-syringe combination essential to the ingestion of opiates.

Those works are among thousands confiscated by employees of the Bureau of Prisons and the Public Health Service, the federal agencies that jointly administered the Narcotic Farm, or "Narco," near Lexington, Ky.

Narco ran from 1935 to 1975, when it closed amid controversy over use of its prisoners for drug research. A multi-use facility designed in art deco style, it straddled the '30s, when harsh sentences raised the number of addicts imprisoned, and the '70s, when the notion of the addict as diseased, not morally transgressive, had gained hold.

Doctors at Narco never found a cure for addiction, but they pioneered research into methadone, the opiate blocker Nalline, even LSD. Though giving drugs to addicts raised ethical questions (talk about a captive population — a willing one), the research holds, even if most "graduates" relapsed.

It's unlikely that the real word was more pastoral than Narco's 1,000-acre tract. Its population mirrored society's, including professionals, "country" addicts and the urbane, artistic types. Its jazz bands must have been pips; though no recordings survive, among the institution's alumni were trumpeter Chet Baker, drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Jackie McLean.

But harboring so many addicts in one place spread a counterproductive word: There were many new places to score, many drugs to try. According to this fascinating book, Narco was a largely noble experiment. The pictures — newspaper articles, actors posing as research volunteers and spectacular institutional photos — speak to its power and position in this country's tortuous approach to drug addiction.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

The Narcotic Farm

By Nancy D. Campbell, J.P. Olsen and Luke Walden

Harry N. Abrams, 208 pages, $29.95

Review: 'The Narcotic Farm' explores early days of drug war – with a captive test audience 12/13/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:31am]
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