Before the war on drugs, the US built narcotic farms

SFU scholar invites public to discuss the history of drugs, addiction, rehabilitation, and incarceration

May 17, 2021

“The concept that morphine or heroin or cocaine could be bought over the counter seems so bizarre from today's perspective,” says Dr. Holly Karibo, SFU’s current Farley scholar, in anticipation of her upcoming public event to discuss drug rehabilitation history research.

Author of the award-winning book, Sin City North: Sex, Drugs, and Citizenship in the Detroit-Windsor Borderland, and assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, Holly Karibo is the Jack and Nancy Farley Distinguished Visiting Scholar with Simon Fraser University’s Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS). During her scholarship, she teaches SFU students about US-Canada border history, vice, and illegal activity, while busily researching the history of US drug rehabilitation for her next book.

Karibo will discuss her upcoming book, A New Home on the Range: Addiction, Treatment, and Punishment in the American West, on May 21, 2021 for a public conversation on drug use, addiction, treatment, and the historical connections between drug law and incarceration.

Her research is worth engaging with no matter your geography or your position on drug use because it reveals governmental approaches that would, by today’s standards, be considered revolutionary.

“There weren't really any federal drug laws that governed consumption or drug use in the 1890s,” Karibo says. Although laws changed this in the 1910s, cocaine, heroin, and morphine addiction had already taken hold, so the federal government created rehabilitation programs to help people cope. The Narcotic Farms Act of 1929 resulted in the creation of two “narcotic farms,” acres of land where people with drug addictions would receive rehabilitation and work the farm in between treatments.

At the time, the US government was focused on “the complete social rehabilitation of America’s drug addicts,” and “the discovery of a permanent cure for drug addiction.” The first of the country’s two narcotic farms in Lexington, Kentucky, “became the world’s epicenter for drug treatment and addiction research.”

Seems impossible, doesn’t it? Or does it? The definition of vice isn’t static. Expectations of who can do what, and what those things/acts/substances are, change over time. Remember: the US, Canada, among other countries had prohibition: the illegal state of alcohol. Completely acceptable acts—winding down with a glass of wine after work, or grabbing a pint with a friend on the weekend—were at one time flat-out illegal.

Today, it’s commonly accepted that recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) help people whose lives become negatively, even devastatingly, affected by their alcohol consumption. If you lived in the US during the 1930s through 1970s, drug addiction treatment was much more challenging and harder to access. The narcotic farms were one attempt at a federal solution; but as Karibo shows, these federal institutions faced serious setbacks and challenges.

Karibo examines US drug rehabilitation history and effects not just through legislation, but also population. Her record and census examination reveals the largely white working class and poor people who populated the government-run rehabilitation centre in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1930s shifted to a growing Mexican American and African American population by the 1950s. As Karibo describes in her findings, this demonstrates “a much more racialized system emerging in the records.”

Farley scholarship

As this year’s Jack and Nancy Farley Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Karibo was invited to SFU to do what Farley scholars do best: work within the realm of history to engage with the public in examining the past so we can better understand our present.

The Farley scholar typically works within SFU’s history department; this is the first time the position extends into SFU’s Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. A perfectly chosen scholar, Karibo herself is a University of Toronto history and women and gender studies graduate.

“I've been collecting thousands of files,” exclaims Karibo, about her current research. “The fellowship is fantastic; it gives me a chance to sit down and write and work through what I've got.”

GSWS event: May 21, 2021 

This year, GSWS proudly celebrates 50 years since the first class in gender and women’s studies at SFU. Karibo’s event is part of the GSWS Reads anniversary events.

Even if you or anyone you know is not directly affected by drugs and addiction, the century-long history of these issues is relevant today. As Karibo’s research proves, policies have backpedaled and inverted into a complicated mess. Policy makers need to rethink approaches to drug use, addiction, and rehabilitation while the US and Canada are criticized for systemic racial inequality and incarceration.

A collective and inquisitive look at history will set us on a clearer path. Karibo agrees: “Certainly, many of the questions and challenges they had in the 30s and before are things that we continue to discuss today.”

Karibo's event, GSWS Reads: Institutionalizing Addiction: A Case Study of Drug Treatment Approaches in the American West during the 1920s is free, online, and open to everyone. We look forward to seeing you there, to listen, to learn, and to participate in the Q & A.

Register now

On June 18, Karibo will also interview University of Saskatchewan professor Benjamin Hoy at the event. His book, A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border Across Indigenous Lands, will add border studies to the conversation, a topic that Karibo includes in Sin City North, and as co-editor of the just-published essay compilation, Border Policing: A History of Enforcing and Evading the US-Canada-Mexico DividesStay tuned for sign-up details.

Watch the event recording on our YouTube channel: