2018 Interview about Acupuncture & The Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis is a hot topic this year, and a recent article in The Atlantic magazine mentions Dr. Mutulu Shakur as one of the figures who brought acupuncture treatment into the mainstream particularly as a method of detoxification from drug use. In addition to inaccurately stating the reason for Dr. Shakur’s incarceration and despite conducting an 11-question written interview, the article did not feature any of his own words. In an effort to add to what little accurate information is publicly available about the highly influential Lincoln Detox program, we are posting Dr. Shakur’s full response to the questions raised by The Atlantic interview.

1. How did you first become involved with Lincoln Detox? Who did you know who already worked there? Why did you decide to apply for a job, and why do you think they opted to hire you?

Early on I had a direct relationship with Felipe Luciano, who was part of the leadership of the Young Lord’s Party and a member of the Last Poets group who went on to become a famous news personality in New York. They performed to support the political movements. We had a good relationship before I became associated with the Young Lords during the Lincoln Detox takeover.

In 1971, I was recruited by the Lincoln Detox Victims Cadre, comprised of ex-prisoners and recovering addicts. I was familiar to them because of my role in the Republic of New
Afrika (RNA), which worked in conjunction with the Black Panthers during the takeover of Lincoln Hospital.

After various incompetent and non-essential programs had been taken over to better serve the people of New York, cadres of the political organizations went back to their regular political tasks. I went to work with the National Committee for Defense of Political
Prisoners; including Herman Ferguson, Imari Obadele Ph.D. and the RNA-11. This committee worked with the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

One of the things that has got to be clear is that I was always a part of a movement. For most of my life, I have been involved in parts of the movement. When I became involved in Lincoln Detox I had already been in the RNA, the Black Caucus, and been a supporter of the RAM cases in Queens; I was already a political activist. When we all hooked up at Lincoln Detox, the major leadership of the Young Lords Party was a segment of what we called the “Lincoln Detox Collective.”

I was recruited to serve a specific function at Lincoln Detox because of my involvement with the takeover by ex-prisoners and recovering addicts. This was done by Director Luis Surita and Peter Jefferies, a.k.a. Atillah, who was the therapy coordinator of group sessions that would eventually become the Political Education component. We worked with the Black Panthers, the Young Lords Party and a white group called White Lightening.

2. What was it like working with the Young Lords and Dr. Smith? Had the Black Panthers cooperated with the Young Lords in the past?

Yes, there was a strong period of inter-organizational cooperation among several progressive organizations trying to improve service in the community.

This question gets into issues concerning the legality of research. Acupuncture was new in the United States and looked down on as an indigenous form of healing, so in order to give it legitimacy, the research and practice of it needed the support from Western medical practitioners and researchers. Doctors who put their lives and careers on the line were Steve Levine, Franklin Apfel, Richard Taft Jr., Barbara Zeller, Randall Maxie, John Lichtenstein and Mike Smith, amongst others. Dr. Steve Levine was needed for his credentials during the takeover of Lincoln Hospital. This takeover was coordinated by the Young Lords and the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, as well as ex-convicts and victims of the drug plague along with the doctor’s collective.

Dr. Franklin Apfel was the anchor for the initial acupuncture research without a protocol at the experimental research stages. He had been a member of Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS), and became a founder of Doctors Without Borders.

Dr. Richard Taft Jr. led the research protocols and was responsible for clinical oversight and conventional detox, as well as the licensing and accreditation by authorities (National
Drug Abuse Council, New York Addiction Service Agency, and Health and Hospital Corporation).

Mike Smith handled the psychological component generally associated with drug addiction therapy. However, when Dr. Richard Taft Jr. was murdered (which we believe was carried out by the COINTELPRO program of the FBI), Mike Smith had to step into the position for the program to utilize his credentials, which also included internal medicine, to keep us in compliance and state certified.

I must also mention the clinic’s lawyer, Stanley Cohen. He dealt with and won every case we had from Lincoln Detox– cases dealing with probation issues, rights of welfare clients, workers rights, and police brutality.

3. When and where did you first learn about acupuncture?

Two parallel experiences occurred in 1970– a car accident involving two of my sons in South Jamaica, Queens that was so traumatic both of them were left hospitalized with severe brain injuries, resulting in comas and complete left and right side paralysis. In trying to satisfy my voluntary service to Lincoln Detox and be the primary caregiver/monitor to my sons, because their mother was also hospitalized, a close associate, Yuri Kochiyama,* took me to Chinatown. It was there I would witness and experience the healing power of acupuncture and moxibustion for the first time in the successful treatment of my sons’ traumatic brain injuries, resulting in total recovery from their paralysis and loss of speech. To me this was a miracle; it was also recognized by the attending Western doctors.

*Sister-Comrade Yuri is also known amongst “Movement Lore” for her attempts at saving Brother Malcolm X by applying artificial respiration, during his brutal assassination at the Audubon Ballroom.

4. What appealed to you about acupuncture?

The fact that it was non-chemical and that the practitioners didn’t wear traditional “white coats.” The ‘white coats’ have always been intimidating to the oppressed community. From my personal experience in assisting my mother, who has consistently needed treatment and evaluations of her deteriorating glaucoma, the disrespect, the indifference and the failure to provide information necessary to make meaningful decisions is associated with the historical arrogance of the status of ‘white coats’ in treating us as
guinea pigs for their drugs, therapies, research and experiments.

At that time, Doctors Without Borders H.U.R.U.M., was a healthcare activist organization that represented an intervention of doctors in establishing people’s health centers. The People’s Health Center doctors organized by progressive organizations began to spring up and have an impact. Pre-Lincoln Detox, I was employed by the various city hospitals in the community of Queens, New York.

5. How does acupuncture work for addiction treatment?

First of all, the theory of acupuncture for addiction treatment is not a novel concept in and of itself. Acupuncture has been a tool against drug addiction for over 100 years of recorded history. The under-exposed story of the Chinese and Vietnamese people’s struggles against opium and heroin addiction smacks at occidental hegemony. The successful use of acupuncture in China against 80% of addiction is nothing short of a miracle; if only the reality wasn’t so clear.

Acupuncture is considered a method of “Natural Healing” because it works by stimulating the flow of natural health-giving energies in the body. In contrast medications such as penicillin or methadone act by altering certain biological cells. We cannot explain or understand acupuncture in the same way that we explain Western medical treatments.** Acupuncture therapists can never rely on standardized treatment plans but always must discover the day-to-day changes in the patient’s energy. It is a form of self-help therapy, because the patient’s own re-balanced energy flow provides most of the health-giving relief.

Our use of acupuncture at Lincoln Detox defied an entrenched history and, dare I say, confronted collusion between the pharmaceutical, political and legislative components with the military industrial complex of that era; not to mention the burgeoning prison industrial complex as aided by the ensuing War on Drugs—that is the politics of it. The therapy stands on its own, based on the ancient art of traditional Chinese medicine– to apply energy flow to meridians and important points of the body on ears, hands, feet and head in order to determine what gave rise to relief. Remember that most drug addicts cannot conceive of anything that will make them feel relaxed and “good” without making them feel “high” or sedated. Acupuncture is a truly revolutionary treatment in the drug abuse field, because its effects contradict the almost universal link between being relaxed and being high. Acupuncture brings more awareness and more relaxation.

**Editor’s note: this is the historical explanation of acupuncture; in recent decades studies have shown some of how and why acupuncture does work based on how it affects cells, neurochemistry and circulation.

6. How did you get acupuncture integrated into Lincoln Detox? Some folks mentioned that you and some others took a trip to Canada to learn about it, is that right? If so, when was that, and who was in that group? If not, how did it really happen?

First you must understand that every decision at Lincoln Detox was made on a collective basis. The battle over the use of methadone and to what degree to use it was an ongoing struggle. What separated Lincoln Detox from the other drug programs was that we refused to maintain any patient on drugs. Rather, we would only use it for detoxification purposes. We believed in drug-free treatment methods and used political education, preventative care and the development of a healthy lifestyle in conjunction with a social and political analysis of the drug plague. I must say we were successful in that method, and our rates of recidivism were low. We augmented that form of treatment only when necessary.

I brought acupuncture to our collective, since I was also doing political education therapy, and it gained unanimous support. Learning acupuncture was a process. If you’re asking about licensing, that’s a history to be discussed. The licensing and getting acupuncture into the program were two different timetables. Again, this exposed the importance of having a licensed Western doctor willing to stand firm against the propaganda of the Red Scare and anti-China paradigm to come forward and use their licensing to benefit the people’s needs. That’s why they must be honored, and that’s why Richard Taft (yes, the grandson of President Taft) is an unsung martyr. We started treating people with acupuncture before we had licensing; it starting by picking up books, finding points in the ear and trying it out on patients willing to give it a go in order to rid themselves of the poisons infecting their body. So we were actually doing acupuncture treatment on patients prior to developing a research protocol and prior to being licensed by the state. We were licensed by the people as this stage of therapy became, through the words and testimony of our patients, “notorious.” We were attacked by other methadone maintenance programs, the Health and Hospital Corporation, the National Institution of Health and National Caucus of Labor Committees.

Instead of analyzing and accepting the effectiveness of Eastern medicine in the treatment of drug addiction, the rejection of it was considered ‘patriotic’ amongst the political and medical establishments. So it should not be a surprise that our program drew the ire of then Brooklyn Assemblyman Charles Schumer, now a U.S. Senator, who at the direction of Mayor Ed Koch led an assembly evaluation of all the so-called third-party residential community programs. These programs were where we kept people in over a certain length of time to allow them to heal. He felt that we had too much control, that our staff had too much control over victims of the drug plague without being certified; and you know, victims politicized to the root cause of their condition were a threat to the right-wing element. Koch, who at the time was the head of the New York City Board of Estimates, led and then won his Mayoral campaign on attacking anti-poverty programs and drug treatment programs in New York City.

Upon proving our successful approach to the devastating plague, the Addiction Service Agency of New York and the National Institute of Health gave us research protocols that began the second stage of our development and spread treatment and training. So as you see, it’s a long story; yes, we went to Montreal where we studied under Dr. Mario Wexu the Director of Education at the International Association of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture, then on to the People’s Republic of China, England and Switzerland to understand the theory and its application. But, more importantly, doctors from all over the world came to Lincoln Detox to view, assist, teach and research this project. So, we developed predictability and we became the base of acupuncturists who were revolutionaries in this country.

7. Who were the main proponents of doing acupuncture at Lincoln Detox?

First of all, the collective made a decision to implement acupuncture as a modality of our overall detoxification and rehabilitation program. Each aspect of Lincoln Detox’s function was governed by the collective decision-making process, involving every employee of every aspect of our program, even some not mentioned; such as the Volunteer Collective that served as a kind of trial-by-fire pathway to serving specific functions within an individual cadre, and eventual employment.

Who were the proponents of it? Everyone was in on the decision-making process to research, implement and apply. The acupuncture collective (administrative, treatment and
fundraising) at any given point involved eight people: Walter Bosque, Richard Delaney, Ricky Murphy, Dr. Barbara Zeller, Angie Wilson, Roxanne Squire, Maria Mendoza, Jennifer Dohrn and Dr. Alan Berkman. While four men and one woman performed the
treatment, one woman conducted follow-up examinations.

8. Were other Black Panthers at Lincoln Detox interested in acupuncture, or just you?

To be a part of the acupuncture collective is not necessarily to be part of any other organization. As I explained earlier, once a decision had been made by our collective we were all in. Individual politically progressive organizations submerged their functions to the will of the Lincoln Detox collective decision-making process. Yes, I played a major role and I believe I did introduce the theory and principles of acupuncture, as I understood them at that time, to our program. I happened to be a member of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), and I accept that I was a crucial liaison to the Black Panther Party because of their members within my family as well as our close organizational affiliation based in part on shared principles and objectives.

9. When you first decided to introduce acupuncture into the program, what was the reaction from everyone else?

Like the rest of the population of the country, most of us were generally ignorant to such a therapy and its specific application to addiction. The principle upon which we engaged the drug plague was that we had to confront chemical warfare. Therapies such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, reflexology, or even dieting, were all modalities vital to our principle of countering chemical warfare using the umbrella term ‘alternative medicine.’ In concert with our principles, whether or not it was effective depended on theory and practice. The approach of the program was to let 1,000 flowers bloom!

10. What are advantages of acupuncture over other modalities, like methadone?

To me that would seem obvious by now, so it looks as if the old becomes new again. From the beginning, research of the National Drug Abuse Conference and Richard Nixon’s Lexington, Kentucky drug research program (known as the “Methadone
Maintenance-Intervention Program”) to the “Rockefeller Program” that involved the forced application of methadone intertwined with the criminal justice system so that use of methadone was a requirement for aid to dependent children, if you wanted to get on welfare, and for parole and probation. The research had not determined what would be a safe dosage at varied stages of addiction, nor what would the prolonged effects of created secondary symptoms would be. Instead of people being detoxified off of methadone, they were being given increased dosages, i.e. “maintenance.”

You see, I’ve been out of the research loop because of the many years in prison and I’m not sure how it’s been defined and focused to deliver the data relative to the effectiveness of methadone in this phase of the opioid epidemic. I have no statistics on crib deaths caused by over-prescribed methadone, but I can say that when I left the field most of the municipal New York City hospitals made available acupuncture detox in conjunction with acupuncture–methadone detoxification. The approval by the FDA and availability of Narcan at the corner store pharmacy I do believe will save lives, but I am not sure how it affects the overdoses of methadone or Suboxone although I have seen a wide range of types of overdoses in prison. My understanding is that at any given time in the last 40 years, methadone has been from 40 to 70% of the black market of illicit drugs on the streets. These statistics should be updated, including other pharmaceutical drugs like Suboxone, etc.

Back to the question…There are no contraindicating symptoms with acupuncture. What else can we say– there is no adverse effect on birth or the psychological, social, emotional or physical wellbeing of the patient.*** However, it has been shown that prolonged methadone use creates an impaired state of psychosis within the addict, amongst many other ill-regarded secondary symptoms generally consistent with other “chemical replacement” therapies such as insomnia, bone pain, and depression that were untreatable by any other means. Acupuncture also reduces cravings for drugs by strengthening normal physiological processes and helping the person cope with anxiety in a relaxed manner.

***Editor’s note: Other than specific points being contraindicated in specific circumstances such as pregnancy or cancer, there are no universal contraindications that would entirely prohibit the use of acupuncture for a patient.

11. Why did you decide to step away from Lincoln Detox? (And when was that?) Did any Black Panthers remain affiliated with Lincoln Detox after you left?

It was never my intent and I absolutely refused to leave Lincoln Detox. I was forcefully removed by the NYPD on orders of the political establishment, and I believe in collusion
with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, the major manufacturer and distributor of methadone. The principle funder of Eli Lilly was the Rockefeller fortune, and functioned as an architect of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York State.

I had several reasons for resisting the baseless forced transfer; one, rejecting forced methadone therapy; two, opposing the deconstruction of the collective decision-making process; the third was opposing the discontinuation of the political analysis of the root of addiction, i.e. Political Education as part of the counseling process; and the fourth was uncovering and exposing the manipulation of the 20-bed inpatient unit.

The 20-bed inpatient unit was earmarked from our budget for research of general detoxification methods, paired with methadone detoxification and the application of acupuncture in the Lincoln Hospital general care ward. It was the most efficacious way to determine research results with statistics, case studies and findings, which was the objective of the funding proposal for the inpatient unit approved by the National Drug Abuse Council, New York Addiction Service Agency and allegedly the Health and
Hospital Corporation of the city. These three entities provided funding for the breadth of the program. The Health and Hospital Corporation provided funding by means of in-kind contributions: available space, office availability, finance management, and program assistance from the hospital.

Lincoln Detox was actually located in the nurse’s residence, separated by a tunnel from the Lincoln Hospital facility. Lincoln Hospital’s Emergency Intake was the emergency facility for overdoses and other conditions for the entire South Bronx area. More importantly, the 20-bed unit was never under the control of Lincoln Detox, nor the Lincoln Detox Acupuncture Unit. This circumstance would later become the basis for allegations and accusations of misappropriation of funds and malfeasance leading to the justification for the termination of our staff and program. At that point, Assemblyman Charles Schumer and Mayor Koch were no longer interested in the financial integrity of Lincoln Hospital, only the elimination of our program and of acupuncture as a detoxification modality.

Upon the closing, were Lincoln Detox workers accused of misappropriation of funds? Was Lincoln Detox performing research with a 20-bed Inpatient Unit of Lincoln Hospital? Did the budget in which Lincoln Detox had include a 20-bed unit? Who performed the audit, for the financial and in-kind contributions of Lincoln Hospital, and the management of Lincoln Detox’s budget?

Upon answering these questions, it is my belief it exposes the responsibility that Lincoln Hospital carries for the 20-bed Inpatient Unit, budgeted to Lincoln Detox by three funding agencies– it shows they were responsible for years of misappropriation of finances allocated for the 20-bed unit that Lincoln Detox never had direct access to financially or physically. These funds were allocated by three funding agencies: federal, state and the in-kind contributions of the City of New York in particular. Lincoln Hospital’s inadequate services led to the takeover of the Health and Hospital Corporation downtown by Lincoln Detox in order to get some answers and access to those resources, all of which is well-documented.

Lincoln Detox staff administrators, of which I was one, had no direct control of cash or accounts. Our management of funds went straight through the Health and Hospital Corporation billing service. We did have petty cash availability, but a 20-bed unit in the municipal hospital represented at least, now I forget the main figures, but at least $400,000-500,000 a year. I believe we had a comingled budget of $900,000 to cover 60 staff members, as well as one of the highest rates of incoming patients around the entire country. Instead of obtaining the unit to serve our treatment/research functions, we contributed to Lincoln Hospital and the Health and Hospital Corporation by providing crisis treatment to addicted patients whose intake was not generated by the drug program or acupuncture program, but the degenerating conditions of the population of the South Bronx and surrounding areas.

So, therefore, by 1978 I was let go under a guise of misinformation covered by a blanket of militant/terrorist counter-narrative because of all the progressive organizations represented within our collective. The day I was fired, they sent 200 policemen up to the clinic, surrounded the clinic and just controlled the whole thing firing all of us or telling us that we were to be sent to other hospitals.

Acupuncture in the hands of the revolutionary-minded, particularly addressing addiction, was an intervention that the government was not willing to accept at the time because it attacked and exposed the complicity of the government in imposing chemical warfare on certain segments of the community. We weren’t only providing medical care and exposing chemical warfare, we were challenging Western occidental medicine by Eastern medicine and natural healing. Right now, today you can go into New York City and in those municipal hospitals within Black and Puerto Rican and poor communities– a municipal hospital, not a private hospital but the municipal hospital– you can now receive acupuncture treatment for drug withdrawal as an alternative method of treatment. I am proud to have been a part of the required effort and accomplishments making this possible.

It means a lot to me and remains one of the most important periods of my life, guiding my human rights priorities. Those experiences completely reflect the narrative of my life’s journey; both the good and the bad, absent the disinformation, misinformation and slander.

From 1978 and on I ventured out to co-found and co-direct the Black Acupuncture Association of North America (BAANA) and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture, along with Dr. Richard Delaney, Walter Bosque and several of my colleagues with the wisdom and knowledge garnered from our shared experiences at Lincoln Detox. Together we trained and internationally certified over 100 students in the medical sciences of acupuncture under the International Association of Acupuncture and the World Health Organization; some of these students were already medical doctors licensed by various states here in the U.S. As you can see, the acupuncture front was a very real threat to existing institutions and the ability to fight chemical warfare was a significant contribution to our liberation. Acupuncture and Lincoln Detox together was a political and medical threat to the theory of legalized chemical warfare and the theory of chemical replacement treatment therapy within our communities.

Simultaneous to my work and responsibilities at Lincoln Detox pursuing acupuncture as a detoxification modality, myself and others co-founded the National Task Force for Co-Intel-Pro Litigation and Research. Our objective and purpose was to investigate expose the FBI and other American law agencies for criminal acts, domestic spying, dirty tricks, repression, and low-intensity warfare maneuvers against the African Independence struggle and others struggling against oppression in America. Through our efforts, including Freedom of Information litigation, we assisted in the exposure of chemical warfare tactics.

Today, I am encouraged in this particular period of awareness of opioid addiction and the role of the pharmaceutical companies in furthering this disease. Their allies are being exposed in Congress by Senator Kamala Harris of California and Senator Ron Paul of Kentucky as a bi-partisan effort to investigate and determine the extent of that collusion in the present. Frankly, this investigation should result in criminal charges, and more importantly expose the past misdeeds as well as absolve those of us who have waged the struggle against chemical warfare. We must all pay close attention to the profiteers within the legalized drug market, for whom healing takes a back seat to their bottom line. You might not call it chemical warfare, but in the 60s, 70s and 80s there was no discernable distinction.

Interview of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, conducted and prepared by Steven Michael Hinshaw at United States Penitentiary Victorville, Adelanto, California on December 9, 2017, at the
behest of Olga Khazan.

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