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Distillations | Science History Institute

325 EpisodesProduced by Science History InstituteWebsite

Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.


Treating America’s Opioid Addiction Part 2: Synanon and the Tunnel Back to the Human Race.

Our current devastating opioid crisis is unprecedented in its reach and deadliness, but it’s not the first such epidemic the United States has experienced or tried to treat. In fact, it’s the third. 

Treating America’s Opioid Addiction is a three-part series that investigates how we’ve understood and treated opioid addiction over more than a century. Through the years we’ve categorized opioid addiction as some combination of a moral failure, a mental illness, a biological disease, or a crime. And though we’ve desperately wanted the problem to be something science alone can solve, the more we look, the more complicated we learn it is. 

Part 2 focuses on a controversial rehabilitation program called Synanon, which became the first significant therapeutic community for opioid addiction. From the time it opened its doors in 1958, it seemed to do what no other hospital, prison, or sanitarium had done before: cure the supposedly incurable heroin addict. But over the years its changing methods became increasingly questionable, and the controversy would ultimately lead to its demise. Despite its faults Synanon had a profound influence on subsequent generations of drug treatment programs—many of which still exist today.

CORRECTIONS: In the original episode we said that by the time John Stallone joined Synanon in 1965, stages two and three had been eliminated—meaning that there was no timeline for him to ever leave. In fact, the phasing out of those stages took longer to implement, and they were still in place when he arrived. This statement has been edited out of the updated audio version.

In the original episode David Deitch says that he found his dog hanging by a noose outside his house, and he believed that a member of Synanon was responsible. However, this story did not happen to David Deitch but to another former Synanon member named Jack Hurst. This story has been edited out of the updated audio version. All other statements made by David Deitch have been corroborated by other sources. 

The original episode suggested that John Stallone left Synanon after the group's leaders started endorsing violence against children, but he left before years before the violence started. The original script read, "John left in 1972 because Dederich was asking parents to live separately from their children, to essentially turn them over to Synanon, and John and his wife didn’t want to do that to their son. And they made the right decision."  John Stallone: They started physically abusing the kids. They started using corporal punishment with the kids. They started hitting them and whatnot. It didn't turn out good at all." The audio version has been edited to replace "And they made the right decision" with "And years later something happened that made it clear they had made the right decision."


Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Reporter: Mariel Carr with additional reporting by Meir Rinde Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Audio Engineer: James Morrison  Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin


Our theme music was composed by Zach Young.  Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network

Research Notes


Claire Clark, author of The Recovery Revolution: The Battle over Addiction Treatment in the United States.  Nancy Campbell, historian and director of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. John Stallone, former Synanon member. David Deitch, former Synanon member, clinical and social psychologist, and emeritus professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.


Claire Clark. The Recovery Revolution: The Battle over Addiction Treatment in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. Synanon Foundation records, Online Archive of California, Synanon Foundation Oral Histories, UCLA Library, Center for Oral History Research, Los Angeles. David Deitch. “Conversation with David Deitch.” Addiction X (May 3, 2002), 791-800.  Hillel Aron. “The Story of This Drug-Rehab-Turned-Violent Cult Is Wild, Wild, Country-Caliber Bizarre.” Los Angeles Magazine, April 23, 2018. Matt Novak. “Synanon’s Sober Utopia: How a Drug Rehab Program Became a Violent Cult.” Gizmodo, Paleofuture, April 15, 2014.

Film excerpts from: 

The Distant Drummer: Flower of Darkness. Washington, DC: Airlie Foundation and George Washington University Department of Medical and Public Affairs, 1972. David, 1961, Drew Associates. Instant Guide to Synanon: A Compilation of the Most Frequently Asked Questions about Our Foundation. Synanon, 1973. The House on the Beach. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1965. YouTube, posted on February 29, 2008. Synanon. Richard Quine, director. Columbia Pictures, 1965.

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