Paper or Plastic, Narcotics Anonymous?

By rebelsmed 11/18/18

One of the tenants of the 12th Step in 12 step programs is the concept of giving back. Many addicts have consumed more than a lifetime of resources from emergency rooms, thieving, rehabs, detox facilities, family and friends. Some recovering addicts choose to give back in more subtle ways, and others embrace the many service opportunities both inside and outside the Fellowships.  Groups adopted the 12 Traditions which gave the spiritual principles needed to function as a service body with integrity. Early in the mid-1980’s, a split emerged within the Fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous.  Critical concepts that were adopted by members were altered by the trustees of the Fellowship.

Tradition 4 (Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or N.A. as a whole.) was altered. A critical concept, “All else is not N.A.”, (Basic Text, Version 2, Tradition 4, page 61, Copyright 1982 by C.A.R.E.N.A. Publishing Co.) was removed and the idea that service bodies are simply trusted servants, and not a part of N.A was suppressed.

Tradition 9 (N.A., as such, ought never be organized, but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.) was altered.  “…The Ninth Tradition goes on to define the nature of the things that we can do to help N.A. It says that we may create service boards or committees to serve the needs of the Fellowship. None of them has the power to rule, censor, decide, or dictate.” (Basic Text, Version 2, Tradition 9, page 68).

The above removed lines had specifically detailed that not only were the service bodies not part of N.A. but that the service body holds no power over groups.  By removing the details that ‘none of them has the power to rule, censor, decide, or dictate’, the trustees had effectively given themselves the authority to do just that. This has caused dissension for more than a quarter century in N.A. and has influenced the decision-making process to this day.

Critical to the success of any service body is the ability to make decisions. Making decisions can be difficult and often it seems like the loudest voice wins the argument. Procedures to allow any organization to function have existed before Narcotics Anonymous, and one of the most popular is Robert’s Rules of Order (RRO). Suffice to say that Robert’s Rules is based on motions that are raised by participants, is considered adversarial, and is rigid in adapting to new ideas and information in the decision-making process since is requires considerable understanding of the rules and procedures. 

Another procedure is Consensus Based Decision Making (CBDM). There are major differences between the two methods, far beyond what I could cover in this article.  CBDM is orientated to problem solving, easily adapts to changes but is prone to groupthink, whereby participants avoid conflict by putting aside their personal opinions and can result is dysfunctional decisions.  RRO was quickly adopted by most service bodies within Narcotics Anonymous early on in its history. Bob Stone was hired to act as chair in some of the first service conferences for NA and likely familiar with RRO, as were many people in business. It was popular for many business people to adopt RRO. Bob Stone eventually became the Executive Director of the NAWS corporation that serves the Fellowship as the primary publisher of literature.

The World Service Conference (WSC) is held every two years for Narcotics Anonymous and is the mechanism where decisions that affect Narcotics Anonymous globally are discussed and voted on. Across the globe there are approximately 35,000 Groups of N.A. who hold 70,000 meetings in 144 countries. They have organized service bodies called an ‘Area’ and send a representative from the grass root groups to the Area. In turn, each Area elects a representative to attend a larger service body called a ‘Regional’, who then send a representative to the WSC. Each of the service bodies decides how they will make decisions and both RRO and CBDM are used today, according to the service bodies’ choice. In 2000, the WSC informed the Fellowship that;

…the World Service Conference is moving toward a ‘consensus-based’ and ‘issues oriented’ conference meeting. While this change is not fully realized yet, the need is evident for a Conference Agenda Report (CAR) that contains issues highly relevant to members and groups. … This frees up our members and groups to devote their attention to holding meetings and carrying the message of recovery, without having to ratify every decision made on their behalf at every level of service. (Narcotics Anonymous, Conference Agenda Report, published in 2000)

An example of a decision made by CBDM in the United Kingdom (from an unpublished policy guide);

To be included on the UKNA meeting list, a group must only use conference approved NA literature. When a new edition of NA literature is approved, the previous edition loses its approval status. The UKNA RSC policy, dated May 2017, states that any meeting found to be using non-conference approved NA literature, will be removed from the meetings list.

Unfortunately, these types of decisions and the use of CBDM have caused dissention within the Fellowship. Groups make decisions by applying the spiritual principles learned from members working the 12-steps and arriving at a decision by considering the spiritual principles learned in the 12-traditions.  They refer to this as a ‘group conscience’ and it governs all the actions that a group does.  CBDM and RRO are mechanisms that service structures use to function outside of the Groups that make up the Fellowship of NA and have no bearing on a group conscience.  Groups use group conscience to arrive at all the decisions that they feel best carries a message to the suffering addict, by whatever means they believe is best. Groups are taught that this conscience reflects our higher power’s will and at its core, Narcotics Anonymous is a spiritual organization.

If the service structures were to reconsider their relationship with the Fellowship as trusted servants, outside of the Groups, without the ability to govern, then a third option would present itself which is being adopted by many similar organizations worldwide.  Spokes councils are becoming very popular. Following is some information about spokes councils drawn from two websites; and


A spokes council is the larger organizing structure used in the affinity group model to coordinate a mass action. Each affinity group (or cluster) empowers a spoke (representative) to go to a spokes council meeting to decide on important issues for the action. For instance, affinity groups need to decide on a legal/jail strategy, possible tactical issues, meeting places, and many other logistics. A spokes council does not take away an individual affinity group’s autonomy within an action; affinity groups make their own decisions about what they want to do on the streets (as long as it fits in with any action guidelines.) All decisions in spokes councils are made by consensus, so that all affinity groups have agreed and are committed to the mass direct action.

Each group sends a delegate (or 'spoke') to the spokes council meeting, where all delegates present the breadth of ideas and concerns of their group.  ...The remit [task] of the spoke needs to be clearly defined for a spokes council to work effectively. The task of the spoke is primarily to feedback information between the small group and the council. The spoke needs to act as a voice for everyone within the small group, communicating the breadth of collective thought rather than their own personal point of view.

N.A. Groups worldwide can choose to participate in service structures, or simply function independently. They make decisions about format of the meetings, what literature to present and/or sell, regardless of the opinion of the service structures that are designed to serve the Groups.  Some Groups use alternative literature produced outside the traditional service bodies and new Groups use translated literature, long before its approved, as was the case in Iran’s N.A. Fellowship (with almost 5,000 Groups currently).  The effectiveness and success of the Group is based on two factors; The unity of those who are members (committed) and the ability to attract the suffering addicts who are new to the Group.  Groups are faced with choices from the service structures, which seems to come down to two choices, CBDM or RRO, like grocery stores asking if you want paper or plastic. Many Groups have a third option of choosing-for example the recycled cloth bags; Members with various experiences, strengths, and hopes who may prefer older literature, alternative literature, and/or a multitude of other choices that allows them to effectively carry a message without outside influence. Spokes Councils would give direction without governance and improve the unity of the entire Fellowship. The success or failure of a group is in the hands of the members who are committed to the primary purpose, (an addict, any addict can stop using drugs, lose the desire to use, and find a new way to live) and does not require outside influence from service bodies. Service structures must understand that they have a responsibility to be directly accountable to the Groups as outside enterprises, and the success of the service structure is in attracting Groups, not dictating to them.



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