Stickin’ it to the man: How Racism & the Black Panthers Introduced Acupuncture Into Addiction Treatment

Many are familiar with the practice of acupuncture and its utilization in addiction treatment. What you may not know is that acupuncture was introduced into addiction treatment by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang, in the South Bronx in the 1970’s. Detox centers for drug addiction especially heroin addiction treatment was the focus of these groups. The gangs also believed that addiction was a way to oppress poor colored communities. Methadone was the standard of treatment for heroin addicts at the time; there weren’t many other options. There are mixed reviews with all methods of treatment, especially acupuncture. Many holistic approaches to addiction treatment with acupuncture still being at the forefront and being utilized by many detox centers.

The Black Panthers, Hippies and the Young Lords Effect on Addiction Treatment

In the 1970’s in New York, there was a raging heroin epidemic sweeping through poor cities like Hunts Point in the South Bronx. Community groups fed up with the destruction ravaging their neighborhoods started to stage sit-ins at hospitals across the poor areas of New York City. After a 5-hour protest led by the  Young Lords (a Puerto Rican street gang), the Black Panthers, and their white supporters,  the administrators of Lincoln Hospital were pressured to open an inpatient drug treatment program. Slowly, the Lincoln Detox built up a staff with addiction counselors and doctors. Lincoln patients were given methadone, a medication used for opiate addiction treatment. Initially the methadone seemed to help, but the communities still weren’t thrilled with the solution.

The hospital staff was ambivalent about methadone despite administering it to patients. There was also a mistrust from some addicts when it came to methadone; some viewed methadone as another drug being pushed by  white doctors to sell pharmaceutical products. The dissatisfaction with methadone led to a great demand for a drug-free treatment for addiction: acupuncture. Around the same time that methadone was being utilized, acupuncture started gaining popularity in America. There was a report in the New York Times about a doctor in Hong Kong relieving 70 patients of withdrawal symptoms through acupuncture. Several counselors at Lincoln Detox were interested in acupuncture as an alternative to methadone. Some counselors went to Chinatown and purchased acupuncture kits, and others went to Montreal, Canada to learn the practice.

Among those who went to Montreal was Mutulu Shakur, an activist who had  strong ties to the Black Panthers and the stepfather to Tupac Shakur. Yes THE Tupac Shakur. Mutulu practiced acupuncture at Lincoln Detox, with other medical professionals in Lincoln Detox. The Bronx facility would also spur Bob Duggan to found Penn North Neighborhood Center in Baltimore, an addiction treatment facility that still uses acupuncture to this day as an addiction treatment method.

Acupuncture and  Early Efforts at MAT for Addiction Treatment

Bob Duggan was a priest in New York City at the time when Lincoln Detox was implementing acupuncture as a treatment option. Bob Duggan ended up leaving the priesthood and married Dianne Connelly, and through their journeys in the “human potential” movement became supporters of acupuncture for addiction treatment. They opened an acupuncture school in Columbia, Maryland, and  through his friendship with a founder of the Lincoln Detox, he was moved to open a treatment center in the Penn North area of Baltimore. Penn North was and is still one of the worst open-air drug market areas in Baltimore.

Although Penn North Recovery Center and Lincoln Detox both offered methadone, they offered acupuncture as a drug-free treatment option. There are some who strongly suggest acupuncture over medication-assisted treatment, either through personal experience or as another method of treatment. Both medication-assisted treatment and acupuncture should be supplemented with counseling and a 12-step program.

There are many studies about acupuncture as a holistic addiction treatment. It is not a cure for addiction. In another New York Times article , a Peking-trained physician who does much work with acupuncture said that acupuncture couldn’t be used to treat smoking addiction. If acupuncture can’t cure a smoking addiction, how could it help in addiction treatment? There have been studies on the correlation between addiction and acupuncture, but they were abstract and non-conclusive. The studies  on acupuncture and addiction treatment weren’t done properly or with enough evidence to collect proper data.

Holistic Approach or Evidence-Based Addiction Treatment

There have been countless studies on medication-assisted treatments as well, and there have been positive results and negative results. Medication-assisted treatments are rising in popularity again as there are more medications to be used instead of being limited to methadone. Most medications used in MAT also help to curb cravings for opiates and have been proven to help lower overdose death rates and help with the physical effects of withdrawal symptoms. At Penn North Recovery Center, acupuncture is still utilized today as it is across many treatment centers. While acupuncture can be used to help relieve some of the physical effects of withdrawal symptoms of opiates, the link between it being an effective addiction treatment isn’t clear. While both acupuncture and MAT have pros and cons, the use of MAT in treating substance abuse disorders has been proven by outside studies and research to be effective. The benefits of Acupuncture on the other hand are far less clear.

While there are countless methods for addiction treatment, acupuncture continues to be a somewhat divisive method. Without the Black Panthers and other radical’s push for alternative methods, addiction treatment might look completely different.

At GateHouse, we do not offer acupuncture as a treatment method, instead focusing our substance abuse treatment methodologies on proven, evidentiary based treatments. If you or a loved one is interested in our MAT program or learning more about the substance abuse treatment methods we use at GateHouse, contact us today at 844-448-3588.