Updated on April 3, 2024
10 min read

Narcotics Anonymous: How It Works and How Effective is it?

Dealing with substance use disorder (SUD) may require medically assisted treatment and other lifestyle changes. Among these recovery and aftercare programs is joining a support group to share experiences and find strength in other people’s recovery journeys.

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is one of the many support groups available for people who need a support network while recovering. This blog article covers the history of NA, its recovery techniques, and how you can join NA groups near you.

What is Narcotics Anonymous (NA)?

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is a nonprofit program for recovering and active drug users. Members attend weekly (anonymous) meetings to help one another maintain sobriety.

The primary purpose of NA is to build strong support groups and help members remain completely abstinent from drugs. Members must participate in sharing sessions and encourage each other to complete a 12-step program.

12-step programs observe 12 principles to help you stay clean from whatever addiction you’re dealing with. They are one of the most popular tools used for recovery.

In general, 12-step programs are based on the following principles:

  • Admitting loss of control over an addiction
  • Turning to a higher power for strength
  • Self-examination of mistakes with the assistance of a sponsor
  • Accepting those mistakes and making amends
  • Learning to live by a new code of behavior based on the 12-steps
  • Committing to helping others with similar addictions

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Who Can Join NA Meetings?

The only criteria for joining NA is the desire to be clean and stay clean. The group is welcome to anyone who has an active drug addiction or had one.

NA doesn’t judge members based on race, religion, gender, or social status. They don’t care about who you are, what you’ve done, or the extent of your drug problem. Their main requirement is to request joiners to have the willingness to overcome their addiction.

History of NA

Narcotics Anonymous was originally founded in Los Angeles, California, in 1953, by James Patrick Kinnon or "Jimmy K." At the time, Alcoholics Anonymous had been around for 20 years and had gained recognition for its achievements.

AA only focused on alcohol, not drugs. Because of this, Kinnon recognized how a 12-step program could help people with drug use problems.

In the early 1970s, NA became an international organization when it opened in Australia and expanded into other countries soon after. By the end of 1983, NA had expanded into more than a dozen countries, offering almost 3,000 meetings worldwide.

In 2018, there were more than 70,000 NA meetings in 144 countries.

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12 Steps of Narcotics Anonymous

The 12 steps of NA are a guide you can use to help you in your recovery. Generally, New NA members must complete each step before moving on to the next one. However, these steps are dynamic and non-linear on where you are on your recovery journey.

Here are the 12 steps of NA:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. We continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

You might master a later step even before you finish an earlier one, or you may even struggle with some of them. The important thing is to make the effort to accomplish each step. Remember to focus on working through the steps rather than criticize yourself based on the outcome.

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What are the 12 Traditions of NA?

Like other 12-step programs, Narcotics Anonymous also operates on a set of Twelve guidelines called the Twelve Traditions of NA. The goal of the twelve traditions is to help members build healthier relationships and live drug-free lives.

Here are the 12 traditions of NA:

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends on NA unity.
  2. For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority, a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or NA as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose to carry the message to the addict who still suffers.
  6. An NA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the NA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, or prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every NA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Narcotics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. NA, as such, ought never be organized, but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Narcotics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the NA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Besides complementing the 12 steps, the 12 traditions allow the organization to stay committed to its goal in unity. These guidelines can help avoid potential problems the organization may have in straying away from its mission.

What to Expect During an NA Meeting

Upon your first visit to an NA meeting, you'll receive a key tag. Over time, you'll be given another after 30 days as a token of your hard work. You'll receive more periodically whenever you attend a meeting.

Your NA group might operate similarly in structure, but it will differ from meetings in other cities, states, and worldwide. Regardless of where it’s held, gaining new members is the most important part of each meeting.

It's important to understand that the meetings aren’t meant to be group therapy sessions. The goal is to create a safe environment where people can connect and support each other’s recovery.

What Happens During an NA Meeting?

Members can share their experiences during NA meetings for 5 minutes or so. Each meeting usually takes 60 to 90 minutes. However, every NA meeting is different.

You may gain new members every week, and some may not show up at all. Meetings are usually discussions or speaker meetings.

Discussion meetings allow members to share their personal stories. Meanwhile, speaker meetings involve one or more members speaking for most of the meeting. Many NA members believe regular meeting attendance is a helpful tool for staying drug-free.

NA Meeting Rules to Keep In Mind

NA meeting rules help keep everyone orderly and focused. These rules include:

  • Showing respect to fellow attendees
  • Sharing only if you are comfortable doing so
  • Using only first names in meetings and keeping attendance private
  • Meetings are held in various public or religious locations, which do not necessarily indicate affiliation

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Open vs. Closed Meetings

Narcotics Anonymous offers both open and closed meetings. Both provide different experiences and benefits.

Closed NA Meetings

Closed meetings are only for members of NA unless otherwise stated, where participants remain anonymous. Everyone agrees to keep the details of the sessions and those who attend private. This is part of the NA traditions and all 12-step programs.

Closed meetings make it possible for members to speak openly and honestly. This is because everyone in the room has the same expectations for privacy.

Open NA Meetings

Unlike closed meetings, open meetings welcome public members interested in NA. This includes people struggling with drug use, visitors from the community, and media.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the program is welcome to open meetings. Open meetings provide an opportunity to learn more about NA and the 12 Steps.

Even if you don’t want to participate in a recovery program, these meetings won’t require you to sign up for a membership. Besides open meetings, you can also join online meetings (virtual meetings).

How Effective is Narcotics Anonymous (NA) for Drug Addiction?

It’s difficult to measure how effective NA and other 12-step programs are for its members. Although studies show its effectiveness on participants under 12-step programs, it's not a complete guarantee.

Measuring success regarding specific data is challenging because NA members are anonymous. Additionally, most research focuses on a specific time frame. This means an NA member might be sober during data collection, but relapse occurs weeks, months, or years later.

Like all treatment programs, NA works for some and is not enough for others. It might also work temporarily for certain people. Finding the right tools is essential to managing addiction; NA is just one of many tools to recover.

Do 12-Step Programs Work?

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, individual needs vary, and successful programs blend behavioral and pharmaceutical treatment methods. NA does not do these things.2

Some criticize 12-step programs for failing to recognize emerging science-based approaches and offering a one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem. There is also criticism of NA’s approach of focusing on spirituality and requiring members to identify as addicts.

NA and other 12-step programs are based on the belief that the individual’s life is “unmanageable.” And that unmanageability arose because of a lack of choice or determination within the mind of the addict concerning whether to use the substance again.

How to Find an NA Meeting in Your Area

You can easily find a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in your area by using the meeting search tool on the NA website. This tool gives you access to a complete meeting list for your city and state.

You can also view area service committee resources here. If you have any other questions about treatment for substance use disorders (SUD), call SAMHSA's National Helpline for free at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 

The helpline is open 24/7 for those in need of a referral. For more information about Narcotics Anonymous World Services, visit them here.

Treatment Options for Drug Addiction

NA and other support groups work best in combination with treatment. However, people react to treatment differently.

Listed below are some of the most effective types of addiction treatment:

Talk to your doctor about getting treatment for SUDs. They can recommend programs that suit your needs best.

Summary

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping recovering drug users. They are a community that meets regularly to help each other maintain sobriety.

Like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), members use a 12-step program to guide them through recovery. Meetings tend to last 60 to 90 minutes and offer open and closed meetings.

Studies show that NAs have been effective at helping people maintain sobriety. However, its effectiveness shouldn't be taken as a guarantee. It’s best to work with an addiction specialist to receive the proper combination of treatments for your condition.

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Updated on April 3, 2024
7 sources cited
Updated on April 3, 2024
  1. About Us.” Narcotics Anonymous World Services.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet].” Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services, 2016.
  3. Rodriguez, T. “Criticism of 12-Step Groups: Is It Warranted?” Psychiatry Advisor, 2016.
  4. Krentzman et al. “How Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) Work: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, National Library of Medicine, 2010.
  5. Abdollahi, S.M., and Haghayegh, S.A. "Efficacy of Group Therapy Based on 12-step Approach of Narcotics Anonymous on Self-control and Quality of Life in People With Substance Use Disorder Diagnosis During Recovery." Journal of Practice in Clinical Psychology, 2020.
  6. Kelly et al. "Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12‐step programs for alcohol use disorder." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Cochrane Library, 2020.
  7. "WCNA37 Program". Narcotics Anonymous World Services, 2018.

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