The History of the Formation of Narcotics Anonymous

The History of the Formation of Narcotics Anonymous

(This part 2 of our series focused on the beginnings and growth of 12 step fellowships)

In part 1 of this series we discussed the issues within Alcoholics Anonymous with drug addicts coming into AA meetings. We’re going to move on from that subject to focus on the influences that led to the development of Narcotics Anonymous.

Cultural, Social, and Treatment Influences

The best way to dive into the formation of Narcotics Anonymous is by discussing the cultural and societal issues, along with what treatment options were available for drug addicts in the 1940’s and 50’s. This was a time following the Great Depression and World War 2 when drug addiction took off amongst the American population. The pharmaceutical industry and doctors were pushing a wide variety highly addictive over the counter and prescription psycho-active pills. 

The most common treatments for those suffering from severe drug addiction was extended institutionalization, electroconvulsive therapy(Shock Treatment), and psychosurgery(Prefrontal Lobotomies). Some narcotics addicts were fortunate enough to find their way to AA before falling victim to the other medical treatment options of the time. Although many did find lasting recovery in AA, many were not welcomed in the same manner that “pure alcoholics” were welcomed.

Here Bill discusses this occurrence

“Suppose, though, that we are approached by a drug addict who nevertheless has had a genuine alcoholic history. There was a time when such a person would have been rejected. Many early A.A.’s had the almost comical notion that they were pure alcoholics — guzzlers only, no other serious problems at all. When alcoholic ex-cons and drug users first turned up, there was much pious indignation. “What will people think?” chanted the pure alcoholics. Happily, this foolishness has long since evaporated.” -Bill w. 1958

Bill acknowledged the foolishness of some of the “pure alcoholics” of the pioneering time but he may have exaggerated by saying “this foolishness has long since evaporated,” as we can still see the same foolishness amongst some AA members today. Fortunately in the mid 1940’s, other fellowships started to form in various locations around the United States. 

Dr Tom and the Narcotics Farm

In 1935, the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital was opened in Lexington, Kentucky. This was a prison hospital that would go on to treat people addicted to narcotics who were sentenced for federal drug crimes as well as those who voluntarily entered treatment. This hospital quickly became known as the “Narcotics Farm.”

One patient that received treatment in this hospital in 1939, was introduced to the Alcoholics Anonymous book shortly after it was published. That patient was Dr. Tom, who returned to his home in Shelby, North Carolina to found the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in North Carolina. He was the first known person to achieve sobriety from morphine addiction through the program of AA. Dr. Tom and the Shelby group became influential in providing information on drug addiction to the AA General Headquarters. In the 1940’s Bill Wilson and other AA members began touching on the subject of drug problems in AA through different pamphlets and articles in the Grapevine.

In 1947, a group that called themselves “Addicts Anonymous” was formed as a result of AA members bringing meetings to suffering addicts that were at the Narcotics Farm. The treatment practiced in this facility was more evidence in the discovery that the 12 Steps could be successfully applied to other drug addictions. This group of Addicts Anonymous met regularly at this hospital from 1947 until 1966.

The First Narcotics Anonymous

The first meeting of Narcotics Anonymous was started by a man named Danny C., who was a patient that achieved sobriety in 1949 at the Narcotics Farm in Kentucky. He started the first meeting of Narcotics Anonymous as a branch of Addicts Anonymous but changed the name because he did not want to have people confused by having two “AA” programs. This was not the same program and fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous that exists today. This fellowship was formed in New York City and went on to publish different works and started to gain some traction but failed to enlarge proper service structure and ultimately dismantled in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Alcoholic/Addicts in California

In the 1950’s in Los Angeles, CA, a movement of alcoholic/addict members in AA began creating Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that were focused on drug addiction. One of those members was Betty T., who also achieved sobriety by going through treatment at the Narcotics Farm and was introduced to Addicts Anonymous. She created a meeting in her home that she named “Habit Forming Drugs.” These meetings gained some traction and were held in peoples homes for several years in the 1950’s. Betty T. began correspondence with Bill W. about the primary purpose of this group and received feedback that it should probably be made separate from Alcoholics Anonymous. Several other AA groups of alcoholic/addicts were occurring around the country and began looking for some support and guidance from AA.

Bill Wilson began to receive requests to clarify AA’s stance on drug addicts in AA. Bill answered all the questions that he could in his Grapevine article in 1958 titled “Problems Other Than Alcohol.” The writing of this article opened the way for addicts to pursue the growth of Narcotics Anonymous along with the suggestion that it should be completely separate from AA.

The first official meeting of Narcotics Anonymous occurred on October 5, 1953. This was the start of the Narcotics Anonymous fellowship that we know today. There were several influencers and founding members of Narcotics Anonymous in California. One of the well known founding members who was nominated as the President of NA in 1953 was Jimmy K. This new found group of NA went through a very tumultuous several years in the mid 1950’s before finding some stable ground in the late 1950’s.


In Part 3 of our series we will discuss some of the hurdles that appeared for the founding members of Narcotics Anonymous and dive into the adaptation of the 12 steps and the writing of the NA Basic Text.

Many of the Historical facts from this article can be referenced to William Whites’ History writing on Narcotics Anonymous that can be found at:

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