Children of Synanon

An acclaimed Tucson drug-treatment program went suddenly, mysteriouly bankrupt. Administrators blame the board of directors. But others are questioning the administrators and their history at the notorious drug-treatment empire known as Synanon.

"The only time it is legitimate to express opposition is in a setting where the rest of the rules are designed to beat the hell out of you," Ofshe says.

Dederich frequently imposed, without warning, strict mandates that all Synanon members were required to adopt. Those who didn't were humiliated during the game or forced to leave the community. The mandates started with an edict banning cigarettes and requiring all members to shave their heads.

Before long, Dederich demanded regular aerobic exercise and elimination of sugar and white flour from members' diets and his nonstop series of self-help lectures was piped into every Synanon member's room via radio. The demands increased, including a requirement that all men who lived in Synanon for more than five years have vasectomies and for pregnant women to have abortions.

Soon after Dederich's wife died in 1977, he imposed his most drastic demand.
Dederich, who had remarried, ordered all married members of the community to switch spouses. The command, known as "changing partners," was met with resistance but, remarkably, several hundred married couples agreed to the switch.

With a loyal base of supporters that he continually tested, Dederich set about building a community that he believed would be a model for the rest of the world to follow. To do this, he needed money.

Synanon raised money by hustling donations from the government and corporations using a sales pitch that emphasized the organization's service to saving junkies. The pitch worked. Millions of dollars' worth of materials and real estate flowed to Synanon.

The nonprofit Synanon also began selling pens, papers and other office supplies to Fortune 500 companies that could be used as promotional materials. That soon turned into a multimillion-dollar-a-year operation.

The booming finances of Synanon were starkly contrasted by the living conditions of its members, most of whom shared quarters in downtown boarding houses or in trailer homes scattered across rural ranches. Synanon workers were paid a few dollars a week for their services.

Dederich and the top management of Synanon, however, began to enjoy the wealth flowing into the organization. By the mid-1970s, Dederich started drawing a large salary, including a $500,000 pre-retirement bonus.

"The way Synanon operated for years was to scam whatever they needed and then do with it whatever management wanted to do," Ofshe says.

The massive accumulation of wealth soon attracted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which began to scrutinize Synanon's tax-free status as a nonprofit organization granted by the IRS in 1960.

Synanon declared itself a religion in 1975 to solidify its position as a nonprofit organization. In the following three years, Synanon developed a paramilitary organization including two internal police forces called the Imperial Marines and the National Guard. Strict discipline was imposed, particularly at the Synanon school where young children were trained in paramilitary maneuvers.

Synanon members began to violently clash with neighbors, and numerous beatings and assaults occurred. The violence culminated in 1978 when Dederich inspired followers to try to kill an attorney named Paul Morantz, who had successfully sued Synanon.

Dederich had fallen off the wagon and was comatose drunk when he was arrested on December 2, 1978, in Lake Havasu City. He later pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit murder along with two other Synanon members who had planted a rattlesnake in Morantz's mailbox. The snake bit Morantz, inflicting serious injury to his hand and arm.

Dederich was sentenced to probation and Synanon's lucrative business enterprises continued in operation.

In 1982, the IRS removed the tax-exempt status from Synanon for the fiscal years 1977 and 1978. Synanon sued the IRS to regain its nonprofit status, but lost the case in 1984.

Rod Mullen, Naya Arbiter and Bette Fleishman played a crucial role in the IRS case against Synanon.

The three provided statements to the government that were used to dismiss Synanon's appeal of an Internal Revenue Service ruling revoking its tax-exempt status. The court case revealed that Dederich had transferred $2 million of Synanon funds to himself and family members. Dederich also received noncash benefits, including a residence at a 300-acre ranch near Badger, California.

Throughout the tumultuous 1970s, as Dederich gradually increased his control over Synanon members to the point of dictating their spouses, the three future founders of Amity remained loyal to the Synanon cause.

"If you had been there any length of time and were still in there by '80, '81, you were a real zealot," says Mitchell.

The trio left Synanon only after Dederich's no-contest plea in September 1980.

"Synanon went morally bankrupt," Arbiter says in explaining their departure at that time. "We were idealistic people who didn't believe in violence."

All three acknowledge in separate interviews that Synanon took a turn toward destruction. But all three maintain that for all its ills, Synanon had redeeming qualities that should be emulated.

"The sad part about the whole Synanon thing is when all is said and done, it was an organization that had done a great deal of good," Arbiter says.

Synanon has had a profound impact on drug treatment in America and throughout the world. More than 2,000 therapeutic communities created to treat drug addicts--including Amity--are modeled on Synanon.

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