The Hazelden Coffee War

Some of the A.A. faithful are real fanatics when it comes to medications; they want to pretty much ban them entirely. They think that if you are taking anything at all that you are just substituting one drug for another. They believe that people should be able to recover from anything and everything with just the Twelve Steps and God's help. In that respect, they are very much like the Christian Scientists who won't go to the doctor, or take their children to the doctor, even if they are dying. Sometimes those A.A. fanatics do great harm, like when they tell neophytes to stop taking their doctor-prescribed medications, and the neophytes get sick, or worse.

As Gary Persip points out in Recovery From Addiction Without God?: 1

I have even heard sponsors advising those they sponsor to refrain from using medications that were prescribed by professionals and, presumably, deemed necessary for the treatment of other medical or psychological problems of the individuals. Occasionally, sponsees will admit that they haven't informed their sponsors of medically prescribed drugs they are taking for fear of a critical response.

Medications of any kind are disparaged, and any diagnosis of disorder other than the Big Book's disease concept of alcoholism meets with strong opposition. The parallel with "faith healing" should be obvious and the same pitfalls are present. To such individuals, there is no such thing as clinical depression.

The many deaths that have been attributed to failure to obtain adequate medical treatment observed among family members of a number of "natural" religious groups comes to mind as a parallel case. How many disasters, including death, has this misguided practice of A.A. members contributed to? On what basis do so many A.A. members assume that they are qualified to advise on matters for which they have no training? The practice, as has been noted, is in sharp contradiction to those Traditions that state that we share only our experiences, strength and hopes with one another, not our opinions.

The book Alcoholic Thinking reports:

One [member] mentioned sitting in a club just drinking "another magic cup of that coffee up there." Many others subscribe to the suggestion in the Big Book that sweets curb the compulsion to drink and should be kept on hand for that purpose. Some people suggest that you "eat some ice cream" whenever you feel like you need a drink. Quite a few people at the club appear to have taken the suggestion of eating ice cream and other sweets seriously.
      Although stories of these types of folk cures abound among members of AA, they are minor and for the most part are the only "medicines" that are acceptable to most members. Ironically, any type of drug other than caffeine and nicotine are looked on as mind-altering drugs and are to be avoided. Some newcomers and a few regular members may quietly receive various mood-altering prescription drugs from physicians, but this is not generally acknowledged. Members are continuously warned that medicating one's feelings with any type of drug is "alcoholic thinking." Many members are chain smokers and coffee abusers, but these are not regarded by most AA members as "bad" drugs of the mind-altering category, even though they will readily admit that overindulgence of either one or both is "addictive" behavior and may be hazardous to health. Many people with longer terms of sobriety quit using tobacco for precisely this reason, but the basic attitude is that it's better to use coffee and cigarettes than to drink. Such chemical substitution seems to be a contradiction to the basic principles of the program, but there is considerable sentiment that anything is better than drinking. Many experienced members will tell newcomers to worry about the alcohol (and the "bad" mind-altering drugs) for the first year or so, then tackle other dependencies.
      The negative attitude to other drugs is an interesting contrast to subjects in third world populations when they are exposed to modern medicines and how they respond to their availability. These populations seem to want "medicines" not simply because they work, but because they "believe" they work (Van Der Geest and Whyte 1989). AA members claim to feel just the opposite. They tend to reject the belief that there are any medicinal or drug substances that can help them and insist that only a "spiritual program" can help them. This tendency is reflected in an extreme form in a story told in a meeting about a terminally ill cancer patient with over 25 years of sobriety who refused pain-killing medications for agonizing months because he did not "want to throw away all" his sobriety.
Alcoholic Thinking: Language, Culture, and Belief in Alcoholics Anonymous, Danny M. Wilcox, pages 70-71.

In a cult checklist web page,2 we read: Elder with 35 years told a newcomer, a young man, his sobriety was no good because he was taking medication for high blood pressure. The newcomer, on the advice of the Elder, quit his medication, had a stroke, and is now crippled for life.

Now that's grim. And there are even more grim stories, far too many stories of people with mental problems being talked into quitting their medications, and then committing suicide.3 I recently talked with yet another ex-member old-timer, who has been in and out of A.A. for 30 years, who quit in anger, and hates A.A., because other old-timer sponsors kept telling mental cases to quit taking their medications, and then those sad cases committed suicide. His parting words to those A.A. members, after another funeral, were:
"Well, before you guys got ahold of him, at least he could say his own name. But when you were done with him, he couldn't even do that."

[There are many more "no medications" horror stories listed here: ]

But sometimes, the anti-drug fanaticism of the faithful reaches comic proportions.

In the March 23, 1998 issue of New Yorker magazine, David Samuels wrote an article titled, "Saying Yes to Drugs".4 It starts with the hilarious story of the coffee war at Hazelden. Hazelden is the richest, most affluent, and most influential twelve-step-based drug and alcohol treatment facility in the country. It should be rich, just a 28-day stay costs $15,000. [Update: 2010.08.18: Now it's $26,000.
Another update: 2015.10.07: Now it's $35,000 to $40,000.]
In the spring of 1994, the faithful counselors at Hazelden decided that coffee was a drug, just like any other drug, and that it should be strengsten verboten.

"There was concern that some people could be using coffee as a stimulant, three-bagging it, or four-bagging it," Russell Forrest, one of the leaders of the anti-coffee camp, recalled. "What we were really dealing with, I guess, was a question of philosophy."

A question of philosophy, indeed. The 12-Step religion has become more extreme in their opposition to any kind of mind-altering chemicals than even the Mormons or the Seventh Day Adventists.

Coffee was banned at Hazelden. This will undoubtedly strike some people as both very extreme and very odd, considering that coffee and cigarettes have been considered essential elements of A.A. meetings since the dawn of A.A. time, in Akron, Ohio. The A.A. faithful can still make the pilgrimage to Akron, to see Doctor Bob's famous coffee pot, the one with which he brewed up the coffee for the original group of A.A. members. And Doctor Bob is often quoted as saying, "All we need for another meeting is a resentment and a pot of coffee."

Bill Wilson was certainly not so fundamentally opposed to drugs. He experimented with things like using vitamin B3 megadoses or LSD therapy as a treatment for alcoholism until the General Services Board considered him to be an embarrassment, and asked him to stop using the GSB for his return address. (Kind of funny, isn't it? Bill creates them, and makes them what they are, and then they tell him that he's embarrassing them, so please go away.)

Nevertheless, at Hazelden, coffee had become an illegal drug. But the coffeeholic patients did not go quietly into that night. No, they decided to rage, rage, against the dying of the light. People smuggled in coffee and coffee concentrates. When patients' belongings were searched, very strange contraband started showing up.

"You had people bringing this stuff in from outside," Forrest recalls, "and there was an underground market, which, of course, you would point out to patients, and you'd say, you know, 'Doesn't this sound like chemical use?' People were opening up packages, and I saw what was in there. It was the strongest brew you could buy. Somebody was getting coffee from South America, and it was sticky and black, and I said, 'What is this? This is not Maxwell House from Bogota.'"

Oh, my God, it's Black Tar Columbian! Not heroin, but coffee!

The black market (pun!) grew rapidly, and people were secretly brewing up batches of coffee in their rooms, and then flushing the incriminating evidence, the grounds, down sinks and toilets. Pretty soon, the pipes were stuffed with coffee grounds, and drains were backing up all over Hazelden. The conflict between the fundamentalist approach to the tenets of A.A. and the practical demands of running a treatment center came to a head. As the plumbing at Hazelden became more and more clogged, the maintenance staff rebelled. Finally, the coffee ban was ingloriously rescinded, much to the consternation of some of the staff, and those darned coffee addicts were able to get their fixes again without being criminals.

The author of the New Yorker article, David Samuels, pointed out that the coffee war was happening at about the same time as a much larger drug debate was happening at Hazelden. Foundation President Jerry Spicer had begun to encourage the use of antidepressant drugs, and other therapies that are not part of the traditional twelve-step process. Thus Spicer was a progressive, putting Hazelden at odds with more conservative, fundamentalist, 12-Step facilities like the Betty Ford clinic. And it put Spicer at odds with some of his own staff — half a dozen counselors quit in protest when Spicer approved of the anti-depressants. For them, allowing both coffee and anti-depressants seems to have been just too much of a departure from a purely spiritual treatment program.

President Spicer was actually hoping that there was some progress being made in the area of treating alcoholism. He had some reasons to be optimistic.

Dr. Alan Leshner
Alan Leshner was certainly optimistic. Dr. Leshner was the head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, or NIDA, the federal agency that controls about 85% of all government addiction-research funding. Leshner talked about a new class of drugs, which are a consequence of recent research into the way neurotransmitters in the brain affect behavior, and how they will act on addiction in much the same way as S.S.R.I.s (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors), like Prozac and Zoloft, act on depression.

Leshner said, "My belief is that today, in 1998, you should be put in jail if you refuse to prescribe S.S.R.I.s for depression. I also believe that five years from now you should be put in jail if you don't give crack addicts medications we're working on now."

Leshner continued, "Look, if swinging a dead cat over your head helps, then I'm all for it. But if someone says never, ever use medications, I can't understand that at all."

There has also been progress in understanding alcoholism. There are an amazing number of people working on different aspects of the problem, and coming up with results. The whole area is very much in flux, and changing by the month. The latest evidence shows that alcoholism may indeed have a "disease" component, just like A.A. has been saying all along. More and more, the scientists are finding anomalies in the brain chemistry of some alcoholics, and anomalies in their genes. Scientists are making discoveries like finding that the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene seems to play a large part in susceptibility to alcoholism and drug addiction. And the terms "D2-D4" and "exon 3 of dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) gene" are popping up more and more often in connection with alcoholism. There is mounting evidence that some alcoholics feel more pain and less pleasure than other people, a condition that they try to fix with alcohol or other drugs.

Alcoholism and some other addictions and compulsions have in common the inability to achieve satisfaction from limited quantities of a pleasure stimulus. This inability, "reward deficiency syndrome," is hard-wired into the brain and appears to be linked to a genetic variation in the D2 receptor of chromosome 11.
See Reward Deficiency Syndrome, Kenneth Blum and others, The American Scientist, March-April 1996.5

Just like the old Rolling Stones rock and roll song says, "I can't get no sat-is-fac-tion, Though I try and I try and I try..."

For a bewildering overload of information, just use an Internet search engine, and search for terms like "alcoholism and allele", or "alcoholism and dopamine", or "alcoholism and gene". The results are so high-tech that a master's degree in biology or biochemistry would help to understand it all, but it is there anyway, and it indicates just how much work is being done on solving the puzzle of alcoholism. This area of investigation is hot, and a lot is happening fast, and new information is being collected rapidly. The recent sequencing of the human genome has added yet one more tool to the investigator's toolbox.

And very recently, there is evidence that "A Functional Neuropeptide Y Leu7Pro Polymorphism [is] Associated With Alcohol Dependence in a Large Population Sample From the United States". They say, "This is only the second specific genetic mechanism ever identified that modulates risk for alcohol dependence."9 They are getting there; they are closing in on the target.

And the evidence also suggests that there may eventually be a cure for some people, or some kinds of "alcoholism", or at least an effective medical treatment. We have reason to be optimistic. But that is a direct violation of a dearly-held A.A. tenet. One of the core components of A.A. dogma is the idea that alcoholism is incurable. Because modern medicine has no cure and the situation is hopeless, the only answer, they say, is to try the supernatural solution: surrender yourself to God, and practice the Twelve Steps and go to meetings forever, and hope that God will keep you sober.

But now modern medicine threatens to upset the apple cart.

Really, someone in A.A. should have seen this one coming. The A.A. Big Book has always described alcoholism as a disease,

"an actual disease that had a name and symptoms like diabetes or cancer or TB."
(The Big Book, 3rd Edition, page 227; 4th edition, page 205.)

Well, we have medical treatments for all of those other actual diseases, even cancer, and none of the treatments for those other diseases involves prayer and confessions, or going to meetings for the rest of your life... With those other "actual" diseases, you don't see articles written by A.A. and N.A. boosters, talking about the necessity of treating the patients' mind, body, and spirit by sending the patients to A.A. and N.A. meetings for the "beneficial effects".6 The New Yorker article said that some people are coming to believe that the Twelve-Step treatment for alcoholism will soon be obsoleted. (No joke, and I'll add that some other people, like the American Medical Association, thought that it was "obsolete" quackery the day that it got started.)

This has happened before. There are numerous psychiatric diseases which are no longer treated with the old "traditional therapy." Patients who used to lie on couches and get Freudian psychoanalysis for $300 per hour now just pop a pill, and that takes care of their problem. For that matter, doctors are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that a large percentage of "alcoholics" have underlying medical or psychiatric problems, problems which the patient was trying to fix by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and that the real cure consists of treating the underlying problems, rather than just demanding total abstinence from drugs and alcohol. And often, the real cure is just a bottle of pills — the right pills.

It was only a century or two ago when psychiatric patients were given such "treatments" as the snake pit by the "medical experts." Again, today, we use medications, instead of the snake pit, for those problem mentally-ill patients.

Nevertheless, even today, we still have both TV evangelists and Alcoholics Anonymous elders prescribing faith healing, rather than anything resembling medical treatment, for various conditions, including alcoholism. And they jealously defend their turf, and resist the intrusion of "atheistic professionals."

I am getting feelings of deja vu all over again. Wasn't this in a movie about a white doctor who went to the Dutch East Indies, and got into a battle with the local witch doctor over whose magic really worked? The witch doctor was losing believers to the western doctor every time the western guy healed somebody, and the witch doctor didn't like that at all, so he conspired to kill the white guys. See The Spiral Road, a novel by Jan DeHartog, and a movie starring Burl Ives and Rock Hudson.
(Available on late-night TV or at your local videotape rental store. Warning: Over all, it's a pretty good movie, and the evil witch doctor's scheme to kill the western doctors is fiendishly clever and really spooky, but the ending features a hokey religious conversion of the agnostic younger white doctor (Rock Hudson) which is enough to make you gag. We just can't seem to get away from somebody trying to convert us, can we? I mean, really, how is it that there are so many people around with nothing better to do with their lives than try to convert me to their religion? What did they do for entertainment before I got here?)

The high priests of A.A. don't want to discuss any new developments. They don't want you to even hear about any new treatments, never mind a cure. As Gary Persip points out in Recovery From Addiction Without God?:

The very A.A. Traditions that curtail members from presenting information or sharing with one another from a "professional" standpoint during meetings effectively act to keep A.A. groups ignorant of current findings in addiction studies; they are assumed to have no place in the program of recovery. This cry of "professionalism" was originally designed to ensure the equality of all participants in the program of recovery, A.A. traditionally being based upon one drunk sharing his or her experience, strength, and hope with another. The current fellowship of A.A., however, has diverged in so many regards from the original program that any information that sounds as if it were based upon professional opinion comes to be regarded as suspect and is, therefore, discouraged. Anything above the level of a drunkalog is met with a stern admonition to "keep it simple." Neither is any current information on addiction research presented in the Grapevine, the official publication of the organization. Dissident cries from members, when permitted to be published, are mild and fully supportive of maintaining the traditional focus.

And what if there is a cure for alcoholism? Or even just an effective treatment? There will no longer be any need to grovel before an authoritarian God for the rest of your life. Just pop a pill. Why waste your time doing the Twelve Steps, and forever listing and confessing all of your faults and short-comings? Why waste a big chunk of the rest of your life going to an endless series of meetings? Why make yourself into a bombastic bonkers babbling brainless believer in a crazy contentious cult? Indeed, if a simple pill can fix the problem, why would anyone want to pay Hazelden, or any other treatment facility, ten or fifteen thousand dollars for a month of "spiritual" treatment that usually fails to fix the problem?8 The A.A. Twelve-Step treatment program will be relegated to the trash heap of history, along with other old medical treatments like the snake pit, blood-letting, and leeches. The show is over, drop the curtain, and would the last one out of the rooms please turn off the lights?

No wonder the high priests of A.A. and their faithful followers don't seem to want there to be a cure for alcoholism, and they don't seem to want to see any new drugs used in the treatment of alcoholism. They have no desire to see their game end. They like the game. It has worked for them. They achieved sobriety in it (in it; not necessarily because of it). It has made them feel successful and important. They have a lot of years invested in becoming a big frog in a small pond. Many of them work the game, and make a living at it, as "12-Step rehabilitation counselors," and aren't qualified to work at anything else...
(That is not a joke: Being expert at parrotting 12-Step dogma and telling people to "Do the 12 steps, get a sponsor, read the Big Book, and go to lots of meetings" qualifies people for no other job besides "counselor" or "therapist" in a 12-Step treatment facility.)
The executives of AAWS make very comfortable livings from the game. So the High Priests of A.A. continue to chant, "There is no cure for alcoholism. There will never be a cure for alcoholism. Nobody ever recovers. Nobody ever graduates from this program. Just do the Twelve Steps, and keep coming back to the meetings, forever. Amen."

But the chanting may come to an end. I hope the end comes soon.


1) For another excellent article on this subject, looking at it from another angle, try:
Recovery From Addiction Without God? by Gary Lee Persip.
Available at:

2) A cult checklist, (dead link), was at:

And if you are looking for cult checklists, try mine.

3) AA Horror Stories, Rebecca Fransway
See Sharp Press, Tucson, AZ, 2000.
ISBN 1-884365-24-8
Dewey: 362.2918 T971 2000

4) For the full text of the New Yorker magazine article, see: Saying Yes to Drugs; by David Samuels.
New Yorker, Volume 74, March 23, 1998. pp 48-9+.

5) Reward Deficiency Syndrome, Kenneth Blum and others.
The American Scientist, March-April 1996.
The links to the online article are now dead. The article was at:

Also see the book on SOS:
SOS Sobriety, The Proven Alternative to 12-Step Programs     James Christopher
Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1992.
ISBN: 0-87975-726-4
Dewey: 362.2928 C556s
This book is about Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) a.k.a. "Save Our Selves". SOS is an alternative recovery method for those alcoholics or drug addicts who are uncomfortable with the spiritual content of widely available 12-Step programs. SOS takes a reasonable, secular approach to recovery and maintains that sobriety is a separate issue from religion or spirituality. SOS credits the individual for achieving and maintaining his or her own sobriety, without reliance on any "Higher Power." SOS respects recovery in any form regardless of the path by which it is achieved. It is not opposed to or in competition with any other recovery programs.
      Especially check out the interview with Kenneth Blum, titled "The Fickle Gene". Blum discovered one of the genes that appears to contribute to alcoholism, and perhaps also a tendency towards drug addiction.
The SOS web site is:

6) See The Role of Spirituality in the Recovery Process, Paul DiLorenzo, Raymond Johnson, and Marian Bussey, Child Welfare, Mar/Apr 2001, Vol. 80, Issue 2, p. 257, for a classic example of this A.A.-booster school of literature.

After a confused look at the problem of drink- or drug-using parents from the A.A. point of view, including a section on "Responding to the Spiritual Crisis" — not, "Responding to the Emotional Crisis" or "the Psychological Crisis" or "the Mental Crisis", just "the Spiritual Crisis" — the authors conclude that "spiritual practices" like attending A.A. or N.A. meetings will help the patients.

The article features such ridiculously lame pseudo-science as

The cerebrum and cerebral cortex (white matter) make the human brain unique and are the source of our abilities to understand, communicate, and create [Ornstein & Thompson 1984]. The white matter assists in making decisions and explains much of the human behavior patterns.

I guess the authors would be surprised to learn that all great apes' brains have a cerebrum and a cerebral cortex. The only thing we have over the rest of the great apes is larger pre-frontal lobes.

And somehow, I think that the chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas who are fluent in sign language will put up quite an argument about just how unique human brains are, and how only humans have "white matter" and how only humans can understand, communicate, and create. Those great apes do those tasks all of the time. If you really try to convince them that they can't think, one of them will probably just tell you to "stick it in your ear," which is the gorilla equivalent of "up yours."

Available on the Internet through your public library's EBSCO periodicals database.

7) "The black market": Does anyone else notice the obvious similarity to the War on Drugs here? The counselors at Hazelden did, but only from the viewpoint of wanting to ban coffee, and complaining that the smuggling and illicit trade in coffee sure resembled dope dealing.

The truth is, people want what they want, and will find a way to get it. The Hazelden coffee prohibition failed for pretty much the same reasons as the current War on Drugs is failing. Where there is a demand, an unfulfilled desire, there is a market and a profit to be made. Someone will supply the desired item and pick up the money, always. That's just how the world works. It's nothing short of amazing how our stupid politicians have not been able to learn that one simple lesson in the seventy years since they repealed alcohol prohibition (because it had failed, in the same way, for the same reason), and then instituted prohibition of all other intoxicating, euphoric, or exhilarating drugs.

8) David Samuels' New Yorker article talked at length about Bill Moyers and his Addiction series on PBS. Moyer's son, William Cope Moyers, had a cocaine habit for which he was treated at Hazelden, twice. When the elder Moyers did his PBS series, he was very enthusiastic about Hazelden and 12-Step treatment, and described it in very positive terms. Hazelden took $30,000 from Bill Moyers for baby-sitting his son for two months, and filling his head with twelve-step nonsense.
      Unfortunately, the 12-Step "treatment" didn't work at all. The son relapsed after both of the Hazelden "treatments". And then he relapsed after a couple of other treatment facilities' "treatments" too.
      It's a shame that Moyers hasn't done an honest sequel to the series, telling us what the results of that extremely expensive "treatment" actually were. I would like to hear him say, "It was all a big hoax. All they did was cheat me out of $30,000.00. Their 'treatment' accomplished nothing."
      If Moyers would like, I'll treat his son at my Papa Doc Orange's Voodoo Clinic and Souvenir Emporium for only $10,000 per month. Our excellent "spiritual" treatment program specializes in performing acupuncture on voodoo dolls. It never fails, if you work the program right.... It works if you work it....
      What is strangest of all, is that Bill's son did finally quit cocaine and get his life together on his own (just like G.W. Bush). Then he got a job at Hazelden as a P.R. spokesman, and is now busy telling everybody how wonderful Hazelden and 12-Step treatment really is, and how much it helped him. Go figure.

9) See: A Functional Neuropeptide Y Leu7Pro Polymorphism Associated With Alcohol Dependence in a Large Population Sample From the United States
Jaakko Lappalainen, MD, PhD; Henry R. Kranzler, MD; Robert Malison, MD; Lawrence H. Price, MD; Christopher Van Dyck, MD; Robert A. Rosenheck, MD; Joyce Cramer, BS; Steven Southwick, MD; Dennis Charney, MD; John Krystal, MD; Joel Gelernter, MD
Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2002;59:825-831

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