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Helping Young People Overcome 'Pills, Pot and Psychedelics'

Judy Klemesrud, The New York Times, 22 March 1967

[It may be heartless to snicker, but passages here can’t help but recall Strangers With Candy. — auskultu]

Cynthia, a cherub-faced brunette in a shocking pink sweater, smiled wanly as she talked about the straight A’s she used to get as a grade school pupil. Now 17 years old and a junior in a respected East Side high school, her grades have slipped to Cs and D’s. She blames her mediocre marks on “pills, pot and psychedelics.”

“For a while, I was going to pot (marijuana) parties almost every night and falling asleep In class the next day,” she said. “One time my head hit the desk with a thump, and the teacher kicked me out of class.”

“There are 2,000 girls in my school,” she continued, “and at least 400 are involved with drugs. Just the other day my best friend brought three cubes of LSD to class in her purse, and asked if I wanted to buy one. For the first time, I turned her down.”

Cynthia was speaking to 10 young persons sitting In a circle in a small apartment on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. They were sympathetic because they, too, had tried drugs and were trying to quit. Some had already succeeded. Their organization, called Encounter, was started last August to help teenagers stop using drugs. Its founders were three young former drug users who had been a part of what they call “the Macdougal Street drug scene” for about four years. They are Brendan Sexton, 21, his wife, Lynn, 19, and Jan Stacy, 19.

Brendan, now a junior in psychology at New York University, grew up in a middle class home in Forest Hills, Queens. Lynn and Jan were reared in the Village. Ironically, Lynn gave Jan his first drugs, and a few years later talked him into attending the group therapy sessions that resulted in his giving up drugs. Three street workers from the New York City Youth Board recently started working with Encounter, along with 100 community volunteers who were alarmed by the teen-age drug problem in their neighborhood.

Encounter’s major focus, Brendan said, is on pre-addicts—those young people who have experimented with various drugs but are not yet addicted. So far about 20 persons, aged 15 to 25, have joined the program, and about 12 have stopped using drugs, he said.

Help for Hard-Core Addicts
There is a separate program for hard-core addicts. It is primarily a four to eight-week orientation period preparing them for entrance to Daytop Village, a residential treatment center for addicts on Staten Island. Several officials of Daytop Village aided in the formation of Encounter, and still supervise the addict program.

Basically, the pre-addict program is run like this: Young persons who want to give up drugs are invited to Encounter’s temporary headquarters on the second floor of 224 West Fourth Street for an interview. Then they are asked to attend what is called a “group” which begins at 1:30 P.M. on Saturday and lasts about two hours. After they have attended five consecutive "groups” and have stopped using drugs, they are allowed to attend advanced meetings, called “encounters,” on Monday and Thursday evenings.

The technique employed at all the meetings is a form of group therapy that Brendan calls “peer group reaching out.” No psychologists or priests are present, just young drug users and former users pouring out their problems to one another. Their exchanges are candid, some-times brutal.

“You feel worthless, don’t you Cynthia ? Is that why you take drugs?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Your parents don’t like you, do they, Cynthia?”
“No, they’re always yelling at me.”
“Well, if I were a father, I wouldn’t want you for my kid. Would you like a kid who was high on goofballs all the time?”

Rita, who at 25 is one of the oldest members of the group, reported that during the week she had refused a friend’s invitation to a pot party. “I had never been able to do it before without feeling badly,” she said. “I just decided that I wanted to enjoy spring. I can’t remember much about last spring because I was always high on pot or methedrine.”

Rita, a tiny blonde who described herself as an editor who can’t spell, said Encounter meetings had given her a self-confidence she had never had  before she started using drugs or while she had been on them. “Last week I shoved aside three boys who were stuffing a younger boy into a dryer in a laundromat,” she said. “A few months ago I wouldn’t have become involved.”

Tom, a tall, spectacled blonde, bragged that he hadn’t used drugs in six months. The last time was when he learned he had been accepted by New York University. “I was uptight (tense), so I tripped out (took LSD) ,” he said.

Cause of Paranoia
A girl in a blue denim dress caused the group to chuckle when she told how she had bought a stethoscope to press against her wall because she thought her next-door neighbor was talking about her. He wasn’t.  "Drugs make a person very paranoid,“ she said.

The purpose of these sessions, Brendan said, is not to cure the young persons of the problems that cause them to take drugs (“we know we’re not qualified to do that”) but to help them learn how to cope with these problems. Brendan, Lynn and Jan conceived the idea for Encounter about a year ago, while they were taking part in group therapy sessions led by Dr. Daniel Casriel, a Manhattan psychiatrist who is interested in drug addicts. (“He’s very groovy,” Jan said.) They set up shop last August in the Greenwich Village Peace Center, 224 West Fourth Street, with a $3,000  grant from the Stern Family Fund. The money ran out in December, and all expenses since then—including the rent on their soon-to-be-occupied permanent headquarters at 150 Spring Street—have been paid with community contributions.

Recently, 12 Greenwich Village residents—among them Jan’s mother—formed a board of directors of Encounter. It is headed by Harry Tenenberg, a science teacher at Intermediate School 70 who believes that, “any teacher who says there is no drug problem in his school is speaking from ignorance.”

Jan, who was once addicted to heroin and supported his habit by selling phony LSD wrapped In tinfoil from candy bars, said the most difficult part about starting Encounter was recruiting young members.

“The first few times I went down to Macdougal Street, about five of my so-called friends tried to get me high,” he said, "I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t tempted.” Now a sophomore at the City College of New York, Jan began the drug route by taking Benzedrine on his 15th birthday. He progressed to marijuana, and then to LSD, which he stopped taking after he had two bad tips. “It felt like razor blades were cutting my eyes out.” His last stop was heroin, and he was up to two bags (doses) a day until Lynn talked him into joining Dr. Casriel’s therapy group. He kicked his heroin habit soon afterward.

“In drugs, there are different status levels,” he recently told a meeting of Greenwich Village civic leaders. “The heroin people look down on the LSD people, the LSD people don’t talk to the heroin people, and the potheads are out of it completely.”

At that meeting, Henry de Rham, president of the Washington Square Association, said the drug problem in Greenwich Village was so serious “that anybody who walks down the street can buy drugs—whether he’s solicited or not.” Brendan said he thought the main reason teen-agers started taking drugs was their desire to appear “cool, hip and aware.”

“It’s just what’s happening,” he said, “like a few years ago when everybody had to have switchblades.”

The Worst Possible Image
To this kind of teenager, he added, there is nothing worse than being thought of as wholesome or “YMCA-ish.”

“A lot of these kids respond to us because we know them from our old hangouts,“ Brendan said, "and they can’t put us down for being square. We hope that by showing them how phony and childish the drug scene is—and that we are just as hip as they are without using drugs—that they will want to come to a group.” Jan is more straightforward when he makes his pitch. “I just tell them that almost every friend I had when I was on drugs is either dead or in jail.”