Film recounts the birth of a radical Bronx clinic that used acupuncture to help people break drug dependence

By Erin Blakemore,

It started with a sit-in — and sparked a movement to bring alternative medicine to struggling communities of color. When activists took over part of the Bronx’s Lincoln Hospital in 1970, they demanded a community detox center.

“Dope Is Death,” a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Mia Donovan, tells the story of Lincoln Detox. The center was founded by a coalition of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and other groups in response to a scourge of drug dependency and deaths in the community. Lincoln Detox helped birth what is now known as acudetox, which uses acupuncture to help people break drug dependence.

Although Lincoln Detox started out as a methadone clinic in 1970, its founders were suspicious of drug-assisted drug detox. Among them was Mutulu Shakur, a member of the Black nationalist group Republic of New Afrika and the stepfather of actor and rapper Tupac Shakur. He and others turned to acupuncture instead. They coupled detox with political awakening: Patients also took classes in Marxism, and many emerged as staunch community activists.

“Dope Is Death” follows the story of the clinic and its founders. It also tells the story of how the clinic’s revolutionary entanglements affected its mission to help people detox.

The clinic faced criticism and surveillance from the start. Imprisonment, terrorism charges, an alleged murder, and accusations of financial mismanagement followed.

Shakur ended up on the FBI’s most-wanted list, and was eventually convicted of RICO conspiracy and charges related to the 1981 robbery of an armored car. He remains in federal prison.

The efficacy of acupuncture drug detox remains controversial and unproven. But the documentary is about more than detox. It documents the struggles of a community coalition that, faced with health disparities and medical neglect, took matters into its own hands — and faced immense pressure from a social and medical establishment criticized for investing little in New York’s marginalized communities.

“We demanded free, quality health care for all,” Cleo Silvers, a former Black Panther member who worked with the detox program, says in the documentary. “That was the bottom line.”

A trailer and link to the film is available on EyeSteelFilm.com, and a related podcast is available at DopeIsDeath.com.

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