AA Unmasked

The Premier 12-Step Program Has a Killer Drug Problem

Bill W. himself emphasized that AA should seek guidance from the medical community. So why ignore the virtually unanimous research? "We don't get into a drug is a drug is a drug," AA's GSO spokesperson told me. "It's not in keeping with our primary purpose." When I cited Dr. Birnbaum's opinion that addiction covers alcoholism as well as other drugs, she replied, "Well, maybe it does in his field of work, but not in Alcoholics Anonymous."

Still, what's the point of attacking AA? After all, addicts who aren't comfortable in one AA meeting can find another one, or go to NA.

But AA's blind spot on the subject of addiction does matter. AA meetings outnumber NA meeting (the next largest 12-step fellowship) three to one. AA estimates that it has about 100,000 meetings worldwide and a membership of about two million, compared to NA's estimated 28,000 meetings and 500,000 membership.

Members wore masks: To protect their anonymity, members of the Dayton, Ohio, AA Chapter donned masks while posing for the press in 1942.
photo: Bob Doty/courtesy of Dayton Daily News
Members wore masks: To protect their anonymity, members of the Dayton, Ohio, AA Chapter donned masks while posing for the press in 1942.

Many areas outside of major U.S. cities have only AA, and even in areas that have NA, most addicts will end up in an AA meeting by default. In the court system, for example, what fellowship to mandate for drug and alcohol offenders is left to a judge's discretion. AA gets, by far, the most referrals. "Older judges are still sending addicted persons to AA," noted the spokesperson for the NA World Service Office. "It's got better credibility, for lack of a better word. And for many judges, AA is all they know."

Take what happened to Los Angeles addict Bruce M. "When I was arrested for driving under the influence," he explains, "the judge gave me a choice: 100 days in jail or 100 AA meetings. No one ever asked me if it was alcohol I was under the influence of. In fact, I was high on a number of drugs."

What's more, an addict's first meeting is crucial. It's hard enough for newcomers—ashamed and destroyed by drugs—just to walk in. Nor are they well equipped to judge whether they're getting what they need. A bad experience can result in a relapse. And a person's next high on drugs can always be the last.

"When I walked into my first meeting, that was all I could do," said Bobbi, who has 12 and a half years in AA. "People pulled me in and made me a part of the meeting. I saw other people who were told not to share as addicts. It turned them off, and they said they would never come back. So many people. Some I've seen at meetings of Cocaine Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. The ones I haven't seen again, I don't know what happened to them. If I had been treated that way, I would not have come back, and I would be dead now."

For a long time AA was all male, virtually all white, mostly Protestant, mostly middle-class, and all "pure" alcoholics. And drug addiction wasn't the only blind spot. AA historically discriminated against African Americans (who were only allowed in as visitors until the mid 1940s, and then were encouraged to start their own meetings) and women.

The AA book Pass It On notes that "even Dr. Bob [an AA cofounder] had expressed uneasiness about admitting women to AA membership when the first few appeared." Alcoholics Anonymous is still gender-specific to men throughout (despite social changes over the last 50 years, purists refuse to alter even one word Bill wrote). The only chapter for women is titled "To Wives."

Women have made some strides in AA since Dr. Bob, but the fellowship's racial demographics continue to reflect its racist origins. As of a 1998 AA survey, an estimated 34 percent of members were women, and AA was 88 percent white.

But what has never evolved is AA's blind spot with drugs.

Bill Turns On

If Bill had found drugs, he'd have done them, and AA would be a different place today. —K.W.

Bill W. did find drugs. He took LSD in 1956, and did so regularly for at least two years. Pass It On recounts that "he was enthusiastic about his experience." There are old AA rumors that Bill did this in an attempt to ease his chronic depression or to test it as a possible cure for alcoholism (which at first some scientists thought it might be). In fact, Bill W. took LSD for the same reasons many hippies later did. He happily turned on non-alcoholic friends and his non-alcoholic wife: "I have felt free to give it to Lois, and she had a most pleasing and beneficial experience. It was not the full dose, and I expect shortly to try that on her. Though she doesn't necessarily connect it with the LSD, there is no doubt she is undergoing a very great general improvement since even this mild administration."

Other AA members were less than thrilled with Bill W.'s experimentation, but like him, they continued to see alcohol and drug use as unrelated. They never thought he lost his 22 years of sobriety and neither did he.

"In AA you could say, 'I shot dope today,' " commented Terry R., founder of Narcotics Anonymous in New York, "and they'd say, 'But you didn't drink!' "

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