November 18, 2018 marks the 40-year anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, the largest single-day loss of American lives, second only to the September 11 terror attacks. On that grim day, 918 people—more than 300 of them children—died after being pressured or forced to drink a flavored, Kool-Aid-like beverage called Flavor Aid blended with cyanide, and the sedatives Valium, chloral hydrate and Phenergan.
The mastermind behind this insidious plan? Reverend Jim Jones, the megalomaniac leader of a religious group called The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ (or just Peoples Temple). It was a predominantly Black congregation, and Jones, a white preacher with a civil-rights activist background, ran it with an iron fist.
Jones’ group, which drew in members with its progressive utopian visions of “breaking down racial barriers” and reducing systemic inequities, had been based in the San Francisco Bay area, but in the mid 1970s, Jones relocated the congregation to a remote compound in the jungle of Guyana. The compound was dubbed “Jonestown,” and it served to isolate Temple members more than ever before.
Since the November 18, 1978 tragedy, much has been written about Jones himself, as well as the idealistic church members who died on his watch. But one element of the massacre that hasn’t been explored as much was Jones’ rampant drug abuse—and how he used substances as a tool of control in his church.
According to The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn, Jones began relying on pain medications as far back as the mid-1960s, when his church was still fledgling, with fewer than 100 members. Jones would reportedly stop mid-sermon and mention his need for medication to get through it. “Jones said that he didn’t like doing it, but sometimes [he] needed the pills to alleviate discomfort from various unspecified ailments,” writes Guinn.
By the early 1970s, Guinn writes, Jones began abusing drugs on a “regular basis” and had no problem getting access to whatever he wanted. Sometimes he got doctors sympathetic to the group’s cause to prescribe him medications directly. Sometimes other Peoples Temple members gave him their own prescriptions (after being sworn to secrecy). Other times members who worked as nurses smuggled drugs into the settlement from the hospitals and health-care facilities where they worked.
Jones—who forbade recreational drug use among his followers—took amphetamines and tranquilizers, in both pill and liquid form, “to provide significant boosts of energy, or else slow down his racing imagination and allow him to rest,” writes Guinn. But the amphetamines contributed to Jones’ paranoia, and he started to believe the CIA and FBI were tapping the church’s phones with plans to “infiltrate the Temple with undercover spies.”
Temple members who spoke out against Jim Jones were punished, sometimes sedated with drugs. In fact, there was a hut at the Guyana compound called the “Extended Care Unit” where members who displayed worrisome behavior—such as speaking out against Jones—were confined and heavily sedated. Some people there were reportedly fed cheese sandwiches laced with barbiturates.
Jones would also put Temple members he felt were disgruntled or dissenting into seclusion when visitors came to Jonestown, because he didn’t want them asking outsiders for help escaping the settlement.
According to San Diego State University’s Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website, “There is little agreement on how many people were handled in this way, although there is no doubt that both Shanda James and Eugene Chaikin were subjected to this treatment.” (Shanda James was a dentist and Temple member who worked on the medical team at Jonestown. Jim Jones allegedly forced her into seclusion after a disagreement; she later died in the massacre. Chaikin, a lawyer who also spoke out against the church and had a falling out with Jones, died there as well.)
Stephan Jones, the only biological child of Jim Jones and wife Marceline Jones, survived Jonestown because he was not on the compound at the time; he was with the temple’s basketball team in Georgetown, Guyana, about 150 miles away. Stephan, now living quietly in California, is quick to point out that Jonestown was anything but a drug den.
“The only known personal drug use was that of my father,” he explains to A&E Real Crime. “The rest of us didn’t smoke, drink or use drugs, especially once we hit Jonestown. The only other drug use…was Dad’s overt and covert drugging of some people to control them: 10 to 15 at most.”
Stephan does admit to youthful dabbling with his father’s drugs, which Jim left carelessly strewn around their house.
In a 2003 essay. Stephan writes about how, when he was 12, he purposefully consumed a large dose of his father’s Quaaludes. He did this not with the intention of dying, but to win the attention and care of his parents—and to get out of attending his father’s long church meetings.
“I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to be telling the truth when I told Mom that I didn’t feel well enough to attend the regular Wednesday night marathon meeting,” Jones writes of his first near-fatal overdose.
He goes on, “Once I got a taste of the attention I got after that first overdose, I had to try it again. I took a bunch of Quaaludes at least two more times, each time ‘confessing’ to having taken more than I actually did after my strategically placed and timed suicide note led Dad or Mom to my easy-to-find body.”
He eventually knocked it off, he says.
It should be noted, that even after Stephan’s brush with death, overdosing at such a young age, his father refused to hide his drugs from his son’s wandering eyes, according to Guinn, because he wanted his stash handy at all times.
Stephan says the Temple’s sole on-site doctor, Larry Schacht, also appeared to be using drugs. Indeed, Schacht was a former meth addict who had allegedly gone clean with the help of Jim Jones. In fact, Jones was Schacht’s benefactor, paying his way through medical school.
Schacht repaid the favor by becoming a Peoples Temple disciple, and the only physician at Jonestown. He was the one who ordered and administered the huge surplus of drugs that were found at the compound. He was also the one who decided to add cyanide to the poisonous mixture that he helped administer to the 900-plus Temple members who ultimately died during the massacre. He, too, died that day.
Stephan, whom The Washington Post described in a 1983 profile as a “quiet witness steeped in rage,” also remembered his father calling Temple members into frenzied, drug-fueled all-night meetings he dubbed “White Nights.” As the Post described it, “They were under siege, Jim Jones would cry; the snipers were after him; the Guyanese army was about to descend; the children would be taken away and probably tortured. They must be prepared to die in the defense of socialism.”
And eventually, they did die. Jim Jones died, too—but of a gunshot wound instead of cyanide poisoning. But, it’s not surprising that Jones’s autopsy found barbiturates in his system, specifically “levels of pentobarbital…within the toxic range, and in some cases of drug overdose have been sufficient to cause death.”