Interview: Arnold Trebach on Drug Treatment Abuse, Legalization and the Reform Movement 6/15/01

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Arnold S. Trebach, JD, PhD, is one of the grand old men of the drug reform movement. He is the founder of American University's Institute on Drugs, Crime, and Justice, which he directed until his retirement in 1997. Trebach also founded the Drug Policy Foundation in 1986, serving as its the first chairman and president until 1997. He is the author of paradigm-shattering books, including "The Heroin Solution" (Yale University Press, 1982), "The Great Drug War" (Macmillan, 1987) and "Legalize It? Debating American Drug Policy (American University Press, 1993), which he coauthored with James Inciardi. He is currently chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Trebach Institute (

On July 21 and 22, the Institute, in association with survivors of harmful drug treatment programs, will present a conference, "Saving Our Children from Drug Treatment Abuse," in Bethesda, Maryland. (See the web site for more details.) The conference will focus on programs such as Straight, Inc., and Synanon, which engage in an aggressive, confrontational form of "therapy" designed to wear down and remold young and vulnerable personalities. Although the names of the programs may change, the "treatment" modality lives on. For more information on abusive treatment programs, visit Anonymity Anonymous ( and The Straights (

Week Online: What are you doing these days?

Dr. Arnold Trebach: One reason I left the movement was that I really got annoyed at the extent to which you have to beg for money to run these organizations. I didn't like kissing King George's ring. Being in the center of the drug reform movement is like having a lover who drives you insane. Great in the bedroom, but can't stand her in the kitchen. After awhile, issues like that made me want out, but I'm happy as a lark these days. I formed the Trebach Institute, which I am trying to develop into the equivalent of a small university dealing with areas that are not being dealt with by other parts of the reform movement. I also formed Arnold S. Trebach and Associates, LLC, which is basically a consulting concern, but the Institute is the main thing. It was through the Institute that my interest in these abusive treatment programs was reawakened.

WOL: That is what your conference will be about, isn't it?

Trebach: Yes. This is an area that I had forgotten about. I had written about the unbelievable abuses of Straight, Inc. and similar programs in 1987 in my book, "The Great Drug War," and did what I could to shut them down. I had succeeded, I thought. But last month, some Straight Survivors -- that's what they call themselves -- happened upon my website and asked me to help them. Straight, Inc. may no longer exist, but they're still out there under various names and still hurting kids. The conference will be a forum for people who have been harmed by Straight, Inc. and similar programs to tell their stories and a wake-up call for the public.

This is serious stuff. These folks are still affected by it ten or fifteen years later. They have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Much of what these kids went through in the name of saving them from sex or drugs or God knows what is a crime. I'm talking about consistent reports of girls and women raped with foreign objects, such as curling irons. I got a call two days ago from a man in Texas who sent his son to Straight, Inc. ten years ago. The father told me it was an awful mistake, that they imposed sexual activities on the young man, that they peed on him. According to the father, his son still refuses to talk about his experience at Straight, Inc. Dad said his brother, a drug counselor, had recommended the place as the best in the country.

We need to develop a strategy where we can help guide victims of these people to emotional counseling, but we also want legal redress for the harm suffered by these kids, who number in the thousands or even the tens of thousands. There are civil remedies. If it's a crime, it's normally a tort as well. There have been successful civil suits. Karen Barnett won $700,000 from Straight, Inc. in Florida. Another kid, Fred Collins, won $220,000 for false imprisonment. And New Jersey teenager Barbara Ehrlich won a $4.5 million settlement against a Bergen County treatment program called Kids, which was operated by one of the former Straight leaders. Barbara had some emotional problems, but had never used drugs. They held her there for years. She was lucky; attorney Phil Elberg heard of her case, became obsessed with it, and worried it like a dog. I want to try to lead people to knowledge about their legal rights to sue.

I also want to share ideas about what's needed to prevent these things from happening again. We're considering an Internet service to alert parents and kids about programs where complaints have been made. We'll report on programs where some action has been taken to address complaints. We want to warn people that abusive treatment programs are out there and their prevalence is unbelievable. I keep getting complaints about places I've never heard of. Elan is one, in Maine. That's the place where Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel confessed to the murder of Martha Moxley, but that place made him worse in many ways. Elan has threatened to sue us if we mention their name. So sue me, it'll get my blood going. We are turning over a rock, and under the rock we are finding a vast number of alleged treatment facilities harming thousands of American kids in the name of saving them form drugs, from sex, and other issues. Some of these kids have serious problems and there is little indication that they are being helped. Finally, we want to ask the powers that be, starting with George W., to focus in on this and acknowledge the harm that is being done.

WOL: Why the emphasis on President Bush?

Trebach: There are political connections here. Straight, Inc. was endorsed by George Herbert Walker Bush, who visited the place with Nancy Reagan and Mel and Betty Sembler and Joe Zappala, who are, as best as we can determine, the founders of Straight, Inc. Both Sembler and Zappala were heavy contributors to the elder Bush's campaign, and both were rewarded with ambassadorships. I saw Ambassador Sembler give a speech in Australia in which he proudly said he founded Straight, Inc. and held it up as a model. More recently, Mel Sembler was the co-chair of finance for the Republican National Committee for the 2000 election. His wife Betty seems to be the guiding light behind the Drug Free America Foundation (, which is a direct descendant of Straight, Inc. DFAF fought Prop. 36 in California, it fights legalization as a horrible scheme, and Betty testified against medical marijuana in Congress. And Jeb Bush last fall declared a "Betty Sembler Day" in Florida, commending her for her work with drug abuse control, especially with Straight, Inc. Betty claims she has the ear of the president. George W. himself has never come out and endorsed these people, but the ties to the Bush regime are there throughout their top funders.

We want to keep exposing those political connections and say to the White House isn't it time you abjectly confessed that you all made a horrible mistake, that you're endorsing child abuse and crimes against America's children? Okay, you people, apologize. Help us draft legislation to prevent this, and please send the FBI out to investigate these allegations of child abuse. We have to start creating a nationwide movement to stop the abuse, and part of that is pressure on the top of the political structure.

WOL: What about the emerging trend toward "treatment not jail"? Does that constitute "coerced treatment"? Is it the proper direction for the drug reform movement?

Trebach: It sounds like a wonderful idea, but…the difficulty is that when you begin to look at the treatment field, you realize there is no clear definition or agreement on even such basics on what addiction is or what constitutes effective treatment. And as I just mentioned, some parts of the treatment field are horribly destructive. Then there's the notion that some sort of coerced drug treatment must be part of the alternative to prison. What about the problem kid whose problem is not really drug use? What about the recreational user? I oppose coerced treatment, but it's complicated. There are people I know who say if they had not been forced into treatment, they'd be dead. I have grave doubts about coerced treatment, but in some cases it may be justified to save a life. This whole notion of "treatment not jail" is so full of difficulties and contradictions that it is very problematic. We have to look anew at the treatment programs, while keeping in mind that there is little evidence that any one mode of treatment works better than just leaving them alone. Among serious drug addicts, spontaneous cures are as prevalent as doctor-induced cures. We are walking into a mare's nest of contradictions with this.

WOL: You advocate an end to drug prohibition, with regulation similar to alcohol. Is it fair to characterize you as a legalizer?

Trebach: I am a legalizer, and it makes a lot of my friends in the drug reform movement very uncomfortable. They say, "do you have to say that?" Yes, god damn it! The nation can't live half slave and half free. Legalization is the only rational thing to do. The fact that we use the criminal law to try to deal with a complex social problem only creates more problems. Criminal prohibition makes no sense. If you have a bag of pot and hit somebody over the head with it, that's a police problem. If you have a bag of pot and go home and smoke, that should be your problem.

WOL: Is legalization as you envision it ever going to happen?

Trebach: I don't even think about that. I was in the civil rights movement and defended a criminal case in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 -- scared out of my mind -- and I never thought I would see black students at the University of Mississippi. But I did. I just did what I thought was right and argued my case, and I still just keep doing what I can do. I think if all of us keep working for what we believe in, one of these days we'll wake up and we will have done it. We're laying the groundwork now. Remember, back in 1928 one of the drys was noted for saying the chances of repealing Prohibition were about as great as a hummingbird flying to the moon with the Washington monument tied to its tail. It was all over five years later. Drug prohibition can be ended, it will be ended. There is no doubt in my mind that prohibition will be repealed just as was Alcohol Prohibition. I have faith in that.

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Issue #190, 6/15/01 Dedication: Peter McWilliams, One-Year Later | Editorial: Death Penalties | Supreme Court Nixes Warrantless Heat-Sensor Searches, Oregon Grow-Op Case Updates Fourth Amendment to Deal With New Technologies | Interview: Arnold Trebach on Drug Treatment Abuse, Legalization and the Reform Movement | US-Mexican Border Governors Agree to Look at Drugs as Health, Not Crime, Problem -- Legalization Talk Making US Embassy Nervous | Follow That Story: Tennessee Cop Walks in Botched Drug Raid Killing | New Zealand Parliamentary Cannabis Decrim Inquiry Underway: Medical Association Says Okay, Green MP Leads the Way | The White Dog Goes to Amsterdam -- and You Can, Too | BC Marijuana Party Fissure: Taylor Resigns, Cites Emery's Leadership Style, Plans for Compassion Club Offensive | Connecticut Passes Sentencing Reforms, Taking Effect July 1st | The HEA Campaign and You | Clarence Aaron Clemency Petition | Action Alerts: Drug Czar Nomination, HEA Drug Provision, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | Call for Submissions: Fortune News to Examine Crack Cocaine Issues | Job Listings in Harm Reduction Practice and Research: Indiana, New York, California, Missouri, Washington State | The Reformer's Calendar

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