‘Don’t take those drugs’: A history of addiction rehabilitation in Berkeley from 1960 to the present

A screenshot of an old copy of The Daily Californian.
Daily Cal Archives /File

Drugs. Sex. Rock ‘n’roll. Such were the icons that symbolized the turbulent ‘60s at Berkeley, a decade that bred the flower children, also known as hippies, who boldly embraced and experimented with counterculture and manifested disobedience through protests.

Yet for those coming-of-age young adults who found a sense of belonging in the ‘60s, drug culture was never just about being immersed in the stereotypical haze of marijuana smoke. Drugs, together with the Vietnam War and the Free Speech Movement, were components of a larger social change that was boldly and proudly taking place. Together, they called for the awakening consciousness of one’s existence, new ways of expression and breaking oneself free from societal and cultural taboos, which all boil down to overwhelming freedom.

What came after the turbulent protests and flamboyant behaviors were tightened controls on the use of drugs. Then-president Richard Nixon declared excessive drug use “public enemy No. 1,” and according to one of his former aides, Nixon initiated the war on drugs to restrain anti-war activists and Black people. Nixon’s long and painful war not only heavily chained the use of drugs but also thwarted research on drug use despite scientists attempting to find beneficial uses for drugs. Later on, president Ronald Reagan continued the trend of viewing excessive drug use as a legislative issue; during his campaign, he made clear his view against campus radicalism, harshly criticizing casual sex and the rampant drug scene and enforcing strict drug control.

The war on drugs was political, but drugs’ prevalence was social and cultural. Don Lattin, a former Daily Californian staff writer who attended UC Berkeley in the early 1970s, recounted the drug scene: According to Lattin, people in the ‘60s went out to seek mental tranquility, a mystical feeling embodying “a sense of oneness with the universe, with the earth, with nature, with other people — almost a melting together.” The desire for spiritual calm drove them toward experimenting with psychedelic drugs, which were a quick way of bringing inner peace, however artificial.

These adventurous practices not only fostered a generation of young and fervent artists, musicians and activists but also marked the city of Berkeley as the hub of revolution. Keeping with this progressive spirit, Berkeley established itself as a place that took initiatives in treating addiction as a health problem rather than exclusively a legal problem.

The Berkeley Barb, a local underground progressive newspaper that promoted the civil rights, anti-war and countercultural movements, covered a 1971 “wipe-out-junk meeting” that took place at the Berkeley Free Clinic. According to the article, drug addiction can be considered a revolutionary problem — it is the responsibility of the people to keep a check on drug use by actively advocating for treatments such as methadone, which was then in its research stage but had proven to be of substantial benefit to heroin addicts.

The war on drugs was political, but drugs’ prevalence was social and cultural.

On Jan. 3, 1963, the headline “Don’t Take Those Drugs” appeared on the front page of the Daily Cal. The article featured Dr. Henry Bruyn, then-director of the Student Health Service at Cowell Hospital. Bruyn pointed out the problem of illicit drug use among college students who would partake in these substances in order to calm down before exams, often leading to undesired effects.  

Bruyn’s work, however, extended far beyond offering much-needed advice to struggling students. In 1959, he was appointed director of the Student Health Service — then located at Cowell Hospital — at UC Berkeley.

At that time, Cowell Hospital was a major medical operation for about 30,000 UC Berkeley students, with hospital wings containing 110 beds and teaching services for fourth-year medical students. While the rest of the hospital served the general population, the Cowell Hospital Residence Program on the hospital’s third floor served as living quarters for students with disabilities. After the arrival of Ed Robert, UC Berkeley’s first wheelchair-using student, several other students followed in his stead.

The residence program soon became well-equipped. According to Lucile Withington, one of the early organizers and counselors at Cowell, the program successfully gathered funding, recruited many experienced counselors comfortable working with students with higher levels of disability and provided physical facilities such as adapted fans and electric wheelchairs.

Though disability assistance was its primary focus, the hospital also treated students who underwent addiction. Each fall, Bruyn and colleagues would perform complete medical workups of all entering students at Cowell for as many as 10,000 students at each station, according to Bruyn. From this large pool of results, Bruyn was able to pull out a smaller sample.

“I did that by just pulling one out of every 20 charts. It gave me about 400 samples,” Bruyn later recounted. He integrated data in the sample into a paper on the health status of young adults with addiction issues, which he presented in Athens, Greece in the mid-1960s.

Three decades after their residency, in interviews with the Regional Oral History Office, some former residents of the Cowell program recounted their experiences.

“It was a very tolerant atmosphere.” said Peter Trier, a resident of the program in 1973, “There were people there who were very conservative; there were people there that were alcoholics or heavy drug users when I was first at Cowell.”

Cathrine Caulfield, the first female resident of the program, also brought up the social scene at Cowell, noting that even the residents indulged in some forms of drugs, sex or rock ‘n’ roll.

“Of course, this was the late ‘60s,” Caulfield said. “We partied hard but kept the ball rolling as far as the disabled movement was concerned.”

Each fall, Bruyn and colleagues would perform complete medical workups of all entering students at Cowell for as many as 10,000 students at each station…

The historical importance of the program in taking initiative to provide rehabilitation services for disabled students and students with drug addiction problems was self-evident. Edna Brean, the former nurse coordinator of the residence program, proudly claimed, “I felt it was one of the greatest things a university like that could do.”

But the work didn’t end with disability residence and rehabilitation — with the same innovative efforts, Bruyn founded the New Bridge Foundation, a publicly funded nonprofit treatment facility focusing on drug use rehabilitation, in 1968. According to Bruyn, the program was a “thrilling success.”

The New Bridge Foundation is currently located on Hearst Avenue near campus and has fully grown into a residential treatment program on excessive drug use. Today, the foundation offers three programs: short- and long-term residential treatment as well as an intensive outpatient program. With the length of treatment varying from three to nine months, each of the programs provides individualized support to clients with different kinds of addictions.

In a 2015 interview with the East Bay Express, Angela Porter, the program director for New Bridge, noted that many clients have weeded through many difficulties before coming to New Bridge, and most of them come from families with low incomes and histories of excessive drug use.

At New Bridge, residents live under strict rules but also receive advice and support from experienced staff members to help eliminate excessive drug use. For many residents, drug rehab services such as New Bridge are preferable alternatives to the criminal justice system and the notorious mass incarceration, where many of their peers end up.

Indeed, unlike the criminal justice system, where many inmates have difficulties in transitioning back to society, the foundation not only helps clients rectify their past misconduct but also makes an effort to ensure the success of their future steps after leaving the institution. With the help of staff members, clients draft resumes and do mock interviews in preparation for their job hunting. According to Richard Lewis, the milieu supervisor at New Bridge, clients learn for the first time that they can provide useful contributions to society, free of their old habits. As most clients don’t own cars, they are employed locally, which further enlarges New Bridge’s client network in Berkeley as former clients refer the institution to incoming ones. Working locally also makes it easier for clients to get help from New Bridge when they need it, even after they have left the institution.

For many residents, drug rehab services such as New Bridge are preferable alternatives to the criminal justice system…

Both New Bridge and Cowell Hospital were supported by national policies — from 1966 to 1968, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, worked closely with researchers and scientists, testing the effectiveness of 4,000 drugs as well as weeding through new methods that could control excessive drug use. Among these methods was the FDA Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, which carried out and firmly consolidated efforts in reducing drug use.

Five decades later, we continue to seek solutions to drug addiction. The Cowell Memorial Hospital building was demolished in 1993 despite its significant place in the history of UC Berkeley. Nevertheless, we at UC Berkeley are witnessing large strides toward more inclusive and tolerant rehabilitation programs and counseling services widely accessible to all students at Tang Center or beyond, passing down the torch that has been ignited since the ‘60s.

Contact Tianyi Ding at [email protected].

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