Narcotics Anonymous (NA) was founded in the early 1950s as an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Although the organization grew slowly at first, by 1983, NA had spread to over a dozen countries and had nearly 3,000 meetings worldwide.Today, NA offers over 63,000 weekly meetings in 132 countries, and has literature available in at least 45 languages.
The purpose of these meetings is to offer a similarly supportive healing environment for people addicted to any substance, not just alcohol. NA strives to be as inclusive as possible – there are no requirements for membership other than the desire to stop using drugs and alcohol, with a goal of complete abstinence. No fees are required. Members attend regular meetings where they can share their stories, hear the stories of other people like them, and gain social support. During sharing, members are discouraged from “crosstalk,” or responding to what other members have said. Instead, they are encouraged to share experiences of their own. New members may find a sponsor – a more experienced member of the program who can act as a mentor and guide.
NA isn’t therapy – there won’t be counselors or therapists at meetings (unless they are there as members themselves). Instead, it provides a form of ongoing care called self-help, in which members learn to manage their addiction moving forward. The experience of “working the program” is meant to be transformative, involving a spiritual awakening that provides an internal motivation to abstain from substance use.
Most people who attend NA do so out of a genuine desire to get better. Narcotics Anonymous reports that a survey of its members found that only 11 percent attended their first NA meeting on account of a court order.
Principles of Narcotics Anonymous
NA groups are designed to be nonprofit and without any religious or political affiliation. This keeps their message focused on helping people recover from addiction and maintain abstinence. In NA programs, members go through a 12-Step recovery process. Themes of the 12 Steps include:
- Admitting that addiction has taken over your life, that you’ve lost control over your substance use, and that abstinence is the only answer
- Surrendering to a greater power that can provide the impetus to recover from addiction where you couldn’t on your own. For some people, this higher power is God, but for others, it’s the group or the program. NA is not a religious program, but a spiritual one.
- Self-reflecting on the flaws that drive substance abuse and striving to improve them
- Making amends to everyone who has been harmed by your substance use
- A spiritual awakening in which the message of recovery can be carried to other addicts
As part of this process, members may find a sponsor or may in turn sponsor other members when they have progressed far enough in recovery. This provides a one-on-one connection that offers recovering addicts a direct line of support. This relationship tends to be less of a typical friendship and more of a spiritual relationship, based on a common need to get well.
Another emphasis of NA groups is service, in which members organize to try to spread NA’s message of recovery to suffering addicts.
What Can I Expect at a Narcotics Anonymous Meeting?
Meetings are usually held in small rented spaces, such as in churches, libraries, community centers, or hospitals. They can be open meetings, in which friends and family members of addicts are welcome, or closed meetings, which are only for addicts or people who think they may have a problem with drugs or alcohol. As the name “anonymous” implies, material discussed by members at closed meetings is generally considered to be confidential and not to be shared with the public.
NA describes how a meeting might run:
- Someone gives a general welcome to all in attendance.
- There is a moment of silence for the still-suffering addict.
- The Serenity Prayer is recited.
- There are introductions for new members.
- Recognition of members’ duration of abstinence with coins, chips, or medallions for staying clean for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, six months, nine months, one year, 18 months, and multiple years occurs.
- A few members take turns reading passages from NA literature. Topics might include the reasons why people attend NA, the definition of addiction, how the program works, how people cope, or messages of hope.
- The structure of each week’s meeting can vary:
- Participation meetings are open for all members to share their experiences on any topic related to addiction and recovery.
- Topic discussion meetings focus on a particular subject for the group to cover that week. The topic might be chosen by the group leader or by a member.
- Study meetings involve reading and discussing a portion of NA literature or examining the 12 steps and traditions.
- Speaker meetings may feature a single speaker who shares their experiences with the group, or may involve two or three people speaking for shorter lengths of time. Speakers may be followed be discussion.
- Question-and-answer meetings give members an opportunity to write down specific questions they may have and put them into a basket. The group leader draws from the basket, reads the question, and invites a few members of the group to share their perspectives on the topic. This repeats until the meeting is over.
- A collection basket goes around to accept donations. NA groups are meant to be fully self-supporting. Contributions are welcome but not mandatory.
- Members make any NA-related announcements, such as for events, group activities, or volunteer opportunities.
- The group may close with prayers or readings, and ask their members to keep what they’ve heard that day confidential.
Does Narcotics Anonymous Work?
Although drug rehab may get people temporarily clean, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that some 40 to 60 percent of people will experience relapse. Participation in groups like NA after treatment can help lower this risk.
A study in Addiction tracked people who received treatment for addiction to opiates, stimulants, and alcohol for five years, 35 percent of whom participated in self-help meetings like NA/AA.
- Among people addicted to opiates, people who went to self-help groups were 32 percent more likely to be abstinent from opiate use at the one-year mark than people who did not, 29 percent more likely at the two-year mark, and 31 percent more likely at four to five years.
- For people addicted to stimulants, self-help groups boost abstinence by 26 percent at the one-year mark, 18 percent at the two-year mark, and 17 percent by four to five years.
- The people addicted to alcohol who went to self-help groups experienced 29 percent increased abstinence after one year, 26 percent after two years, and 34 percent by four to five years.
The study also found that the more often each person attended meetings, the more likely they were to be abstinent from substance use at follow-up points. Another study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that NA programs were also effective for reducing marijuana use.
Finding a Narcotics Anonymous Meeting Near You
If you’re looking to join a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, use NA’s Find A Meeting tool to search for meetings worldwide. You can also find meetings online at NA-Recovery.
We can help you find meetings near you. We also offer 12-Step meetings at some of our treatment locations to help our clients get the ongoing support they need to maintain their recovery. Give us a call today to find out more.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.