Doctor to '60's rockers to talk about addiction Friday

The addiction doctor who treated legendary rock stars and helped introduce the nation to the idea that people have a right to health care will deliver a Grand Rounds lecture this week at the University of Florida.

David Smith, M.D., Ph.D., will talk about “The Summer of Love: Sex, Drugs & Rock ’n Roll” at 2 p.m. Friday in the DeWeese Auditorium of UF’s McKnight Brain Institute.

Much has transpired since the free-wheeling days of 1967, when illicit drug use was an expression of both freedom and destruction. Artists like Janis Joplin, one of Smith’s friends, personified the moment. She would perform to raise funds for Smith’s free addiction clinic in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, only to succumb to the drug trap herself.

Today, Smith still lives in walking distance to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, where he became semi-retired in 2006. In true “what goes around comes around” form, the clinic’s founding philosophy — health care is a right, not a privilege — is a central issue in the national health care debate.

“People don’t know if the idea came from a speechwriter or wherever,” Smith said, “but it is right out of the counterculture revolution of the ’60s.”

Smith had been an unlikely participant in the social upheaval. His pedigree from solid Oklahoma stock had him squarely on a path toward “professional and academic success.”

He received a public education at the University of California Berkeley and set his sights on medical school. He bought an apartment building to live in — never dreaming that it would become a center for drug treatment — and became interested in pharmacology. Then came the LSD explosion of the ’60s.

“The whole, hippie better-living-through-chemistry idea hit Haight Ashbury, and I got involved, although it was completely not in my background,” he said. “I was seeing all these kids with drug problems, and I did something that was totally out of character. I started a clinic for them.”

And so it goes. Joplin and the members of the Grateful Dead lived just blocks away, and became not just friends, but supporters. And they believed that health care was a right, not a privilege.

“It became the founding slogan of our clinic,” Smith said. “Ours truly was a clinic built on rock ’n roll. It was the beginning of a nationwide free clinic movement aimed at the uninsured. Our idea was that addiction is a disease and an addict has a right to treatment.”

Gradually, with more veterans returning from the Vietnam War, the nation’s focus turned from criminalization of drug users to treatment.

Leading physicians and psychiatrists, including Mark Gold, M.D., chairman of psychiatry at the UF College of Medicine, championed the treatment concept. Gold’s work revealed the biological mechanisms that cause people to become addicted to cocaine and other drugs — mechanisms of addiction that today are even being applied to food. He said Smith’s relationships with the rock legends of the ’60s, his work to develop free clinics and his assessment of the dangers of drug use give him a truly unique perspective.

“He was the most famous rock ’n roll doctor,” Gold said. “He was at Woodstock and was among the generation that believed marijuana was safe, until his friends and colleagues became addicted to marijuana. He is a one-of-a-kind legend and pioneer who has lived to tell physicians, students and others about the devastation produced by one supposedly safe drug after another — from amphetamine to cocaine to ecstasy to cannabis — on the basis of real experiences with the rich and famous and his patients, neighbors and family.”

In 2009, at the urging of addiction doctor Robert L. DuPont, M.D., Smith and Gold presented a history of the field to the members of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. He and Gold also presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, with Smith leading a “rock ’n roll” tour through his Haight Ashbury clinic and the surrounding neighborhood.

“We tried to capture the flavor of San Francisco in the ’60s, and people loved it,” Smith said. “Here were a bunch of psychiatrists and addiction medicine doctors who knew about this era — they lived it. It wouldn’t be unusual for someone to come to me and say, ‘I’m a practicing physician and I’ve been to 400 Grateful Dead concerts.’’’

Although the era’s irreverent spirit — and its flaws — are deeply ingrained, Smith said the social contributions made during the Summer of Love are overlooked and provide insight to problems the nation is confronting today.

“So much of this is lost in history,” Smith said. “What I’m trying to do with this lecture is trace the origin of these ideas with a West Coast perspective, because I’ve found most people who live where policies are made don’t know the origins of the issues involved.

“One of the most satisfying things about the free clinic movement is that it is an alternate way to respond to the needs of the uninsured,” Smith said. “For example, we supported a common ground free clinic in Louisiana to help people who were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. That’s where free clinics have their eye on the ball. They don’t change their purpose in life based on whims of government or the electorate.”

The lesson, Smith says, is to develop a value system, and then put it to work in your community.

“Beware of drugs,” he said. “Nothing founded on drugs will succeed in the long -term. And keep your focus. If it goes out of vogue, that’s OK. I believe people like Mark Gold and I think alike — we wonder how we are going to train the next generation to carry on what we’ve done,” Smith said. “Not everyone can be fortunate enough to accidentally start a clinic during the biggest drug revolution in history, like I did.”

Smith still practices addiction medicine at Center Point, a six-month therapeutic community for nonviolent drug offenders outside of San Francisco, and is chief of addiction medicine at Newport Academy in Orange County, Calif., which is similar in its 12-step centric approach to UF’s Florida Recovery Center. He works with Scott Teitelbaum, M.D., medical director of the FRC and other UF addiction medicine physicians with the ASAM.