Resisting 12-Step Coercion Foreword

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As Stanton Peele notes in his Preface, there are myriad avenues by which individuals are forced into 12-step alcohol and drug treatment, and into 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). The total number of such persons is in excess of 1,000,000 annually, and is likely closer to 1,500,000. Given that approximately 2,000,000 persons are treated annually in the United States, this means that a majority of those treated are coerced into it, as are a majority of newcomers to AA and NA.

What seems to have escaped general notice is that, given the number of those treated, if treatment were anywhere near as effective as treatment advocates claim, the number of alcohol abusers in this country would have plummeted to near zero over the last two decades—that is, in the period when 12-step treatment was instituted on a mass scale in this country. Yet the treatment of literally tens of millions of Americans has had no discernible effect on the rate of alcohol abuse in the United States.1

This is hardly surprising given the nature of the great bulk of treatment. Well over 90% of treatment facilities in this country are 12-step facilities, and, as we'll see, the treatment they provide consists primarily of religious indoctrination. As Chapter 3 shows, the religiosity of the 12-step approach is so obvious that it's amazing that anyone would deny it. Yet 12-step groups and individuals routinely and vehemently deny it, asserting that their program is "spiritual, not religious."

This denial of the obvious began at the time that AA separated itself from its parent Protestant evangelical group, the Oxford Group Movement. The motive then was to sidestep a possible ban by the Catholic hierarchy on Catholic participation in AA. That concern has long passed, but most AA members remain in deep denial about the religious nature of AA.2

At present, there are two primary reasons for this. The first is that the vast majority of AA members are ignorant of both the history of their organization and of what constitutes religion. As well, they're members of a very anti-intellectual organization in which questioning is considered a "disease symptom," and in which great emphasis is placed on unquestioning acceptance. (Two of the most popular AA slogans are "Utilize, don't analyze," and "Let go and let God.") So, most AA members hear the "spiritual, not religious" assertion at meetings and repeat it in parrot-like fashion.

The many AA members who own and staff 12-step treatment facilities, as well as those who staff AA's educational and medical front groups, have an additional motivation: money. Treatment is a multi- billion-dollar industry, and the honest admission that AA (and all other 12-step groups and treatment) is religious in nature would seriously jeopardize their access to that river of government and insurance industry cash.

The end result of all this is that ineffective, expensive religious indoctrination in the guise of treatment continues to be the norm in this country; at least tens if not hundreds of thousands of 12-step group members—many with little training beyond AA or NA membership—are employed in the treatment industry; many others, who own the treatment facilities, have profited handsomely; AA's good name as a voluntaristic organization has been severely tarnished; and the tens of billions of dollars spent over the last quarter century on 12-step treatment have had no discernible effect on the rate of alcohol abuse.

Another ugly truth is that AA true believers have largely managed to block forms of treatment that are both inexpensive and have good scientific evidence of efficacy. This continues to this very day, and is especially true of controlled-drinking therapies. In fact, 12-step professionals routinely vilify and blackball other professionals who dare to question 12-step orthodoxy, and especially those who have the courage to try to establish alternative treatment programs. There have been many ugly incidents of 12-steppers attacking controlled-drinking researchers, advocates, and clinicians with the cry, "They're killing people!" What makes this most ironic is that the large bulk of the scientific studies with control or comparison groups indicate that 12-step groups and treatment are themselves quite ineffective in dealing with alcohol and drug problems.

One of the reasons for this demonization of controlled drinking advocates (and of those who advocate decriminalization or legalization of drugs) is the demonization of alcohol and other drugs in 12-step ideology. Twelve-steppers do not regard drinking and drug problems as mere behavioral problems which individuals can through hard work and persistence learn to overcome.3 Rather, in AA and all other 12-step groups, substance-abusing individuals are presented as powerless in themselves to deal with their problems; and the substances they abuse are presented as powerful. Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in Alcoholics Anonymous, AA's "Big Book," in which alcoholics are presented (in step 1 among other places) as "powerless," while alcohol is presented as "cunning, baffling, powerful!" (Wilson, 1939, 1976, pp. 58 59).4

The effect of this demonization is threefold: 1) It at least partially absolves substance abusers from responsibility for their actions ("I couldn't help it I'm an alcoholic and the alcohol made me do it!"); 2) It discourages individuals from trying to overcome their own problems by presenting those problems as insoluble (without the direct intervention of God), and so could well serve to increase the number and severity of drug and alcohol problems; and 3) By presenting substances as evil and powerful, it provides the rationale for authoritarian governmental intrusion in the lives of individuals (who might easily fall prey to these evil, "cunning" substances).

This third effect has led (at least in part) to the so-called War on Drugs. This war has greatly increased government intervention in the lives of individuals, has grossly eroded civil liberties, has cost easily several hundred billion dollars (and likely over a trillion) over the last few decades, and has resulted in the imprisonment of millions of individuals who hurt no one for consensual "crimes" involving substances far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.

A great irony of this war on victimless crimes is that it has resulted in an increase in real crimes crimes with victims. By greatly driving up the price of drugs, the government has ensured that addicts will need large amounts of cash to purchase drugs thus ensuring vast amounts of property crime (which some blame on drugs rather than on government prohibition, ignoring the fact that outright addicts of such highly addictive drugs as nicotine and methadone don't commit property crimes to support their habits due to the low cost of their legal drugs).5

One doubts that this was what Bill Wilson had in mind when he set the ball rolling by describing individuals as "powerless" and alcohol as "cunning, baffling, powerful!" But it's what he wrought.6

Those who originally promoted the 12-step concept of alcoholism and addiction (in medical guise, the "disease concept of alcoholism/ addiction") were quite probably well intentioned; they likely wanted to replace moralistic judgment of alcoholics and addicts with medical compassion for the "diseased." But their efforts have resulted in disaster for the nation incredible expense, an utterly ineffective approach to addictions, and millions of ruined lives. In the face of all this, 12-steppers continue to assert despite a great deal of contrary evidence that their approach is the only way to deal with addictions. And a great many of them, shamefully, now advocate and willingly participate in the mass coercion of their fellow citizens into what were once proudly voluntaristic religious healing programs.

There is some good news, though. In recent years, several appeal- level courts have ruled that AA and other 12-step groups are religious in nature, and that the state's coercing individuals into attending such groups is a violation of the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court recently refused to hear the appeal of two such cases, so there is no Supreme Court decision on the subject (that is, there is no national binding precedent), and there isn't likely to be one any time soon. This means that reform will proceed piecemeal across the country, as those who advocate, order, and participate in coerced 12-step participation are quite unlikely to abandon their use of coercion until forced to do so.

Thus change will come only when individuals stand up for their rights. This book is dedicated to those brave individuals. And it is dedicated to giving them the information they need to successfully resist 12-step coercion.

—Charles Bufe

Tucson, AZ
December 1999

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I would like to thank those who were good enough to offer useful criticisms and suggestions during the writing of my portion of this book. These include Archie Brodsky, Stanton Peele, Lynaea Search, and Emmett Velten. I would also like to thank those who were good enough to provide research materials and/or other useful information to me. These include Archie Brodsky, J.A. Johnson, Stanton Peele, Guy Salamone, Bruce Tomaso, Lois Trimpey, and Emmett Velten. Finally, I would like to thank Earl Lee for help with the cataloguing of this book. If I've omitted anyone, my sincere apologies.