How Racism Brought About Acupuncture For Addiction Treatment In The US

By Victoria Kim 08/10/18

Community leaders in the Bronx in the '70s were wary of using methadone to treat addiction so they opted to take a holistic approach.

woman undergoing acupuncture therapy

A distrust in the profit-driven pharmaceutical establishment formed the roots of acupuncture for addiction treatment in the United States, according to a report in The Atlantic.

According to writer Olga Khazan, it all began with community activists in the Bronx. During the 1970s, the northernmost New York City borough faced a daunting drug problem with few resources to fight it.

Community activists the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and their supporters, rallied for the creation of an in-patient drug treatment program at Lincoln Hospital, and won.

About 200 people were in line at the opening of Lincoln Detox, but according to Khazan, the community, including detox staffers, was not convinced that methadone was the answer to the Bronx’s drug problem.

As Samuel Roberts, professor of history and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, explained, this sentiment was rooted in a distrust for the establishment disseminating the pharmaceutical drug. “Methadone was highly regulated—it’s run by white doctors, in white coats, in white hospitals,” Roberts told Khazan.

This fueled a growing interest in acupuncture—a staple of Traditional Chinese Medicine that involves inserting thin needles at strategic points to balance the body’s flow of energy—because it did not require medication and facilitated the idea of community members healing one another.

Some traveled to Montreal to receive training in practicing acupuncture, which they would bring back to Lincoln Detox. (Rapper Tupac’s stepfather Mutulu Shakur was among this group. He’d later found his own organization, the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America.)

Lincoln Detox would later drop methadone altogether, opting instead to offer acupuncture treatment and other holistic treatment instead.

Bob Duggan, who founded Penn North, a recovery center in Baltimore, learned about acupuncture for addiction recovery from Lincoln Detox and brought it to Baltimore. Daily acupuncture is a mandatory part of the center’s recovery program.

There are currently more than 600 recovery programs in the United States that use acupuncture, according to the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA).

While there’s no clear consensus among the research community of the efficacy of acupuncture for addiction recovery, Sara Bursac, executive director of NADA, says the practice is effective as part of a multi-faceted program that includes counseling and 12-step meetings.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr