Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House, continued

From the outset of the Matrix House treatment program, there were concerns among non-medical staff at Lexington that neither Dr. Conrad nor Wildes appreciated the explosive nature of allowing addicts free reign within a building isolated from the rest of society. Before long there were also signs that something was amiss inside Matrix. In my interview with Dr. Jack Croughan, Matrix’s attending physician and the only person other than Dr. Conrad with a key to the Matrix building, recalled meeting a young woman inside Matrix whose withdrawn behavior struck him as odd, particularly given the generally upbeat feel of the place — which he described as “slightly hypomanic.” But with no evidence of wrongdoing – and the denials of the woman that anything was wrong – he voiced no concerns.

Matrix House residents enjoy a little posed quiet time on the front porch.

Some months after that incident, Matrix was shut down in dramatic fashion by the FBI amid allegations that members were being tortured and that bombs were being assembled in the basement. The bombs – it was initially reported – were part of a plot to overthrow the federal government. This turned out to be false; the group was in fact building pyrotechnics for a musical theater production they were intending on presenting later that year.

In April of 1973, however, Jon Wildes appeared in federal court in downtown Lexington to face weapons charges.

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Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House

In 1970, four recovering drug addicts, disillusioned with their treatment at U.S. Public Health Service Hospital – aka The Narcotic Farm – started their own drug-free support group. With their pledges to stay clean through a self-motivated “heal thyself” credo, the four men quickly caught the attention of The Narcotic Farm’s lead administrator, Dr. Harold Conrad. A rising star within public health’s Washington Beltway coterie, Conrad had been sent to Lexington to shunt the institution’s mission, which had been dramatically altered by a major change in the drug laws brought about by the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, or NARA.

During the NARA years, addicts who committed felonies but were deemed by judges to be good rehabilitation prospects were allowed to enroll in federal drug treatment programs to avoid going to prison.

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Setting the Stage for Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House

In 1966 Congress passed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, a wholesale rethinking of the treatment of drug offenders. NARA rested on a forced marriage between the Bureau of Prisons, the Attorney General, and the Surgeon General. The law gave judges back discretion in sentencing. They could go for voluntary commitment, commitment in lieu of prosecution, or send offenders to aftercare.

To this day NARA remains a singular attempt to minimize criminal penalties for drug use at the federal level. For addicts, NARA was huge. Overnight incarcerated addicts became eligible for status and benefits as NARA clients. Once assessed, good rehab prospects were remanded to their hometown treatment facility. And if there was no treatment back where they came from, the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) would find an agency to provide it.

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