Chautauqua conversations: Bahamian Allen combines spirituality, psychiatry to fight drug scourge

It all began for Dr. David Allen in the Bahamas, his native land, where he has achieved a professional pre-eminence matched by few. Allen is a psychiatrist trained in Scotland and at Harvard who came to be widely recognized over 30 years ago as he first identified and then analyzed the cocaine epidemic. Speaking and publishing internationally about what he saw in his clinical practice in Nassau, Bahamas, and consistently including a spiritual and religious component in his teaching and lecturing, Allen came to the notice of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion. His initial appearance on the grounds in 1989 initiated a long-standing relationship that continues into the present with Allen and his wife, Vicki Allen, as property owners since 1999. We spoke on his porch overlooking Miller Park.


Tell me about how it started with you and Chautauqua.

David: I did a number of courses with longtime Chautauquan and distinguished psychoanalyst Janet Gibbs. Janet was trained as a concert pianist, as a fashion designer and as a psychoanalyst. Each summer at Chautauqua, Janet and I would give an introduction to a subject, say crack cocaine addiction. Then, we would facilitate an interactive experience. The audience was really able to participate with us as we explored a particular subject. That went on for almost 10 years.

Vicki: Say why this was connected with the Department of Religion.

David: Ross Mackenzie was then the director of the department. He thought it was important to present at Chautauqua some topics that were not strictly church-related.


How did Mackenzie hear about you?

 David: Some Chautauquans had heard about my work in the Bahamas and wrote to Ross. By that time, the crack cocaine epidemic was hitting the U.S. pretty hard, and the feeling was that Chautauquans should know more about it.

Vicki: It wasn’t just that he was a scientist and that his field was addiction. He also has a strong spiritual side, and he brought in the link between recovery from addiction and finding your higher power. His lectures always had a spiritual component, and that’s why he transitioned so easily after a while to the Hall of Philosophy. He would give talks in the Hall of Missions, too. He brings together the spiritual and the psychological, and shows why they are not contradictory.


Vicki, talk about your work.

 Vicki: My field is the work of Frederick Buechner, who is often quoted from the pulpit and was a major 20th-century American writer and theologian. For many years, I taught a course on Buechner in the Methodist House on the grounds, at 8 a.m. in the morning. I was amazed at the number of people who would turn out at that time of the day. Many of my students were ministers who had read and studied Buechner. They were among the people who encouraged me to write my book.

Ever since we have had our place here on the grounds, we have returned to Chautauqua every single year. We both taught for many years. Now, we’re taking a break because we are busy with new projects.


Before we get to that, go over your early training and what led up to your breakthrough in the Bahamas.

David: I studied at St. Andrews University in Scotland, the golfing capital of the world. After that, I went to Harvard to study psychiatry in the medical school. On my first day of work there, a lady came in and reported seeing beautiful, multi-colored rabbits jumping around in my office. This was not a typical psychosis; it turned out to be a form of cocaine-related psychosis.

After medical school, my father felt I should return home and give back to the Bahamas, so I began a small research protocol there in 1980. In this practice, I saw people who were using a different form of cocaine, which I had never heard about. As I investigated, I found that it was then called “rock.” Users would take the cocaine powder, heat it in water and smoke it. Usually, you snort cocaine. The high from this new form of drug was phenomenal.

My research showed users would get about 25 percent of the drug’s effect from snorting cocaine, but the figure from smoking what became known as crack would rise to 80 percent. It would cross the blood vein barrier in eight seconds. People would do anything to get that high. And I began to lecture on this around the world.

My first year in running this protocol, 1983, I had 82 patients. The following year, the figure rose to 500. There were exponential increases afterwards that indicated an epidemic. The Bahamian government at the time denied this, fearing the negative publicity and its impact on tourism. The cocaine cowboys from Colombia had taken over Norman’s Cay, south of Nassau — remember that?

The Bahamas was on the main drug transshipment route into the U.S., and locals were in the employ of the cartels. They sometimes paid their Bahamian employees in pure “product,” as well as in cash. The epidemic resulted.


You moved to the U.S.

David: Yes, Vicki wanted to pursue her Ph.D. at Georgetown University, so we moved to Washington, D.C., in 1992. I found that the homeless shelters were turning into crack cocaine dens. I set up a crack treatment program at one of the homeless shelters. I ran that and some related programs for about a dozen years.

All of the new drugs, like methamphetamine or ecstasy, are based on the crack “model,” by which I mean you smoke it and get this irresistible high. But the more you use it, the more it takes to replicate the previous high. The cycle persists.

What is the focus of your work now that you are back in the Bahamas?

David: We have started a clinic we call Family. It attempts to take addicts from recovery to discovery, from limitations to potential — after they have recovered from their addiction.

All of the countries that have been ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic have suffered from terrible social fragmentation. Most cities in America, islands in the Caribbean, Colombia, Mexico, they have all been devastated. Crack is the first step in a kind of systematized drug addiction, which leads to guns, violence and the devaluation of human lives. Powerful, violent youth gangs are involved in the cocaine commerce.


Why is your Bahamian research important?

David: The Bahamas is so small that it serves as a kind of natural sociological laboratory. About seven years ago, I tried to find out why the murder rate there was rising so rapidly. There were other symptoms: Domestic violence was spiking also. The economic downturn, of course, played a role as well. But drugs were at the root of most of the crime, violence and despair.

I tried to attack the social degeneration I witnessed with a kind of group therapy. It was based on a safe environment and story sharing. We accept whatever a person says and refrain from judgment.


It sounds like an adapted form of Alcoholics Anonymous.

 David: Yes, it is similar. Over time in our sessions, a bond develops between the person sharing the story and the listener. That bond is what I call family. I have 38 families at present in Nassau, at the prison, at the boys’ reform school, at orphanages and the like. We have gotten some grants to support our efforts.

In 2013, we combined nine international instruments based on gratitude, shame, anger, depression and examined a cohort of about 40 people. Within a year we found that people resorted less to violence, were better able to manage anger, and experienced less isolation. There was more gratitude and forgiveness. We have written this up for specialized academic journals, and experts in the U.S. have begun to see signs of resocialization in our cohort.

We are trying to apply some of the lessons we have learned in the U.S. We think that a possible solution to tragedies like those in Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina, may lie in establishment of groups bringing together police and community members. There is some cultural resistance at first, but we feel we are making some progress in several states and communities in the U.S. now. We are hopeful.