A revolutionary drug rehab program that morphed into a violent and controversial cult.

Founded in 1958 by Charles “Chuck” Dederich, a former alcoholic, Synanon started as an innovative drug rehabilitation program. It was based in California and initially garnered support for its novel approach to treating addiction. Synanon’s program was structured as a three-stage process aimed at reintegrating members into society, with an emphasis on community labor, working outside the community while living within it, and eventually living and working independently, still connected to Synanon through regular meetings.

Transition to a Cult

In the late 1960s, Synanon evolved into an alternate society, adopting a “lifetime rehabilitation” philosophy. This marked a shift from rehabilitating drug addicts to a belief that they would never be fully capable of reintegration into society. The organization expanded rapidly, amassing over 1,300 members and substantial assets, including real estate and businesses.

The Game

A central feature of Synanon was “The Game,” a form of attack therapy. In these sessions, members would endure intense criticism from peers, using harsh and profane language. While it began as a therapeutic tool, The Game became more extreme, evolving into a 72-hour version used to pressure members to conform to Dederich’s increasingly authoritarian and extreme directives, including undergoing vasectomies, abortions, and committing acts of violence.

Legal Troubles and Violence

Legal scrutiny of Synanon intensified in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on its practices, unauthorized medical clinic, and tax issues. Dederich’s vision became more grandiose and extreme, leading to the formation of the “Imperial Marines” to maintain order. The group engaged in violent acts, including beatings and the infamous incident where a de-rattled rattlesnake was placed in the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz, who had successfully litigated against Synanon.


By the late 1970s, Synanon faced severe legal and financial problems. Dederich was arrested in 1978, and his health deteriorated, leading to his stepping down from leadership. The organization’s tax-exempt status was revoked, and it was ordered to pay millions in back taxes. By 1991, Synanon had formally dissolved.