Referring to Narconon, Tony Ortega wrote, “Scientology advertises that they’re going to give you individualized drug counseling. And they’re very careful never to tell you that you won’t be talking about drugs at all. You’re just getting Scientology training.”
That assertion by Ortega, a journalist who has been writing about Scientology since 1995, does not present a unique or biased position. Rather, since its inception, Narconon has been a magnet for both controversy and criticism.
First Things First – What Is Narconon?
Narconon presents itself as a substance abuse treatment program. Founded in 1966, the organization’s philosophy on addiction and recovery are a reflection of the theories of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. It is important to note that Hubbard did not have any special medical or scientific qualifications.
It is of little surprise, then, that many of Narconon’s positions on addiction and recovery are at odds with the general consensus among medical and addiction treatment specialists.
What Does the Narconon Program Consist of?
Narconon rejects the “addiction as a disease” model, saying that the concept takes power and responsibility away from the individual. Instead, their treatment program can be broken down into 4 stages:
- “Drug-free” and “non-medical” withdrawal – The program does not support Opioid Replacement Therapy or Medication-Assisted Therapy, disavowing the idea that a drug addict can be helped by giving them more drugs.
- Training Routines – Performed with another person in order to “bring about interaction between the individual and the existing physical universe”. This is done in lieu of the accepted model of therapeutic individual and group counseling that is employed by “mainstream” drug rehab programs.
- New Life Detoxification – Focuses on a regimen of vitamins and nutritional supplements, “laying on of hands” faith healing, exercise, diet, sauna, hydration, and adequate sleep for “detoxification”.
- Life Improvement Courses – During this phase, patients are instructed on new “Life Skills” and “Objectives” that are supposed to help them move beyond their destructive and self-limiting pasts.
Addressing the Controversy – DOES the Church of Scientology Own Narconon?
Yes, although both Narconon and the Church insist that the program is secular and completely independent. Officially, they state that Narconon legitimately provides drug education and rehabilitation.
However, multiple lawsuits, investigations, governments, and even former patients allege that Narconon is little more than a “front” with a mission statement of introducing vulnerable individuals to Scientology for recruitment.
Does It Matter That Scientology Owns Narconon?
The fact of ownership, per se, isn’t the problem. Rather, the issues are as follows:
- Transparency – Nowhere on Narconon’s website do they mention Scientology. Instead, they tout adherence to the theories of Hubbard, calling him merely a “author and humanitarian”.
This lack of transparency is evidenced by the links that Narconon will go to disguise its association with Scientology. For example, Narconon is “officially” owned by the Association for Better Living and Education, which is itself entirely run by Scientologists.
In addition, Narconon also owns and operates several facilities under different names, including:
* The Truth about Drugs
* Suncoast Rehabilitation Center
* Sober Living in Orange County
* Say No to Drugs, Say Yes to Life
* Rainbow Canyon Rehabilitation Center
* Pur Detox
* Israel Says No to Drugs
* Get off Drugs Naturally
* Fresh Start
* Foundation for a Drug-Free World
* Drug-Free Ambassadors
* Blue by the Sea
- Agenda – Is the true goal to help drug addicts recover? Or is Narconon instead a profit-driven recruitment tool for the Church of Scientology?
- Legality – There are restrictions in place that govern the activities of religious organizations and their ability to use public funding.
How Successful Is the Narconon Program?
Narconon claims of success are remarkably high, ranging between 60% and 86%. Their defined measure of success is a client who has completed the program and remained drug-free for at least one year afterwards.
Critics of Narconon, however, point to a few disquieting facts:
- Narconon’s own publicity materials present different success rates – 8 publications, 7 different results.
- Lack of documentation for the claims, which are often touted without citation.
- At least 2 of the sources are, in fact, Scientology publications, indicating a strong possibility of bias.
- By having a very broad interpretation of results, Narconon is criticized for misrepresenting their supposedly success.
It is this last practice that is of particular concern.
For example, Narconon frequently points to a 1981 Swedish study that supposedly shows the program has a success rate of 78.6%. This same study is also the quoted source reporting that Narconon was 84.6% successful.
However, a closer examination of the report paints an entirely different – and unflattering – picture.
- Entering the program – 61 people
- Left during detoxification – 24
- Left during the other stages – 23
- Completed the program – 14
Right away, you can see that neither percentage representing the entire sample could possibly be true, because the “graduation” rate – 14/61 – was just under 23%.
13 of the 14 graduates were able to be contacted. Of those, 4 had stayed drug-free since graduation, and 7 were currently drug-free, even though they had previously relapsed. This is the source of the “84.6” figure – 11/13. The “78.6%” figure is arrived at when the missing 14th person is included – 11/14.
But obviously, these are incomplete representations. Remember, only 4 people who had entered the program were able to stay drug-free.
When you divide those 4 by the 61, who had entered the program, Narconon’s “success” rate drops to just 6.6%.
About Narconon’s Withdrawal Stage
During the withdrawal stage, a physically-dependent person entering the program is first given a physical by the on-call Medical Director. For relief during withdrawal, clients are given vitamins and minerals to supposedly help with physical symptoms, along with supportive care from Narconon staff and a nurse.
As a branch of Scientology, Narconon does NOT give palliative drugs to ease withdrawal. Once the stage has begun, the client is cut off, period.
A major criticism of this approach is the fact that this strategy is used for every client and for all drugs, despite their different addictive natures. For example, while withdrawal from marijuana is relatively mild, quitting opioids can be harshly painful and unpleasant, while abrupt alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal can be extremely dangerous – even fatal.
Yet the same approach is used, each time.
This is in complete contrast to the most-recognized evidence-based practices today, which have determined that medical supervision and medication assistance provides the safest and most effective way to get through withdrawal.
About Narconon’s Training Routines
The “TRs” of Narconon lifted directly from the doctrine and religious practices of Scientology, even though they are supposedly separate. They are a series of routines that are not based in any accepted psychological or behavioral counseling techniques.
One of the biggest criticisms from a past client was how the routines were rigidly practiced with no explanation of WHY they were practiced. For example, one exercise involves staring into the coach’s eyes, and this would be practiced for hours on end. Yet, the client was given no explanation as to why this particular exercise was necessary.
About Narconon’s New Life Detoxification Program
This is one of the most-controversial aspect of Narconon’s recovery program. Critics call it “quackery” at best, and DANGEROUS at worst.
Again, although Narconon and Scientology are supposed to be separate, the Detox portion of the program is virtually an exact copy of Scientology’s “Purification” ritual.
It starts with the scientifically unsound theory that all drugs are stored long-term in body fat. The procedures involved in this stage are all designed to “sweat” those drugs out.
- The Niacin “Drug Bomb” – Hubbard – again, neither a scientist nor a medical professional – that niacin would help mobilize toxins stored within the body so they could be eliminated through sweat. Clients are given massive doses of niacin – up to 4000 mg per day.
To put that number in perspective, the recommended daily allowance suggested by the US Institute of Medicine is only 14-16 mg a day. Adverse effects begin manifesting at dosages over 50 mg.
- Exercise – To increase circulation, distribute the niacin, and quickly eliminate drugs and toxins.
- Sauna – To force sweating. While generally, people are told not to remain in a sauna for more than 30 minutes, Narconon enforces sauna sessions of up to 5 hours.
- Vitamins, minerals, and oils – The dosages given FAR in excess of what is recommended.
Each of these procedures are based on Hubbard’s beliefs – not accepted science.
Deaths during the Narconon Program
Here’s the worst part – most of Narconon’s staff has NO medical training. Each facility DOES have a medical director and a nurse, but they are typically on call, rather than on-site.
In practice, this has resulted in some adverse reactions and medical emergencies that were instead misidentified by unqualified staff as positive proof that the detoxification was working.
- 1984, Grancey-sur-Ource, France – Jocelyne Dorffman died because of an untreated, epileptic seizure. Staff neither gave sufficient emergency treatment nor called for qualified medical assistance.
- 1995, Valsassina, Italy – 2 young men in their 20s died during the detoxification phase of treatment –Paride Ella of kidney failure, and Giuseppe Tomba of a heart attack. Both men exhibited similar symptoms, 4 days before their deaths. The facility had no medical personnel on-site, and other staff members were unable to properly judge the seriousness of their conditions.
- 2002, Torre dell’Orso, Italy – a 33-year-old female client died from peritonitis, after complaining of stomach pains, the day before. Staff members had not recognized her symptoms, and had therefore not given her sufficient medical attention.
- 2008, Norcross, Georgia – Patrick Desmond died of a heroin overdose. In the subsequent investigation, the facility intentionally provided misleading documents to the state.
- 2009-2012, Arrowhead, Oklahoma – 4 different people – Kaysie Dianne Werninck, Gabriel Graves, Hillary Holten, and Stacy Murphy – died at the Narconon facility. In 2013, the state permanently revoked, Narconon’s permit for medical detoxification.
What’s the Bottom Line about Narconon?
There is no ONE standard treatment program that can help every addicted person 100% of the time. Every rehab program or facility has its own philosophy and employs its own unique strategies to help clients in need.
All that being said, the era of treating patients based on personal beliefs is long over with. Today, the best alcohol and drug recovery programs are evidence-based – using accepted data and the latest science to shape effective policies and procedures.
This is important for several reasons:
FIRST – addiction has been positively identified as a disease – a legitimate disorder of the brain characterized by a recognized set of symptoms. As such, it should be treated like every other medical condition – with strategies that have been proven to be both safe and effective.
Narconon rejects the disease model, and therefore ignores best practices.
SECOND – as science advances and increases our understanding disease of addiction, treatment approaches must likewise evolve to best serve patients.
Narconon still bases their treatment on the outdated and unscientific beliefs of a person with no medical training. Even worse, Hubbard died more than 30 years ago.
THIRD – Substance use is dangerous. Besides the risk of overdose, patients must also often deal with other associated health problems either caused or worsened by their addiction. Anyone in a recovery program should be supervised by qualified medical personnel.
By not having qualified medical personnel on-site, Narconon puts its clients at-risk.
FOURTH – Alcohol and drug withdrawal is a difficult and dangerous time during early recovery. It is crucial that anyone detoxing from intoxicating substances receives the proper services and support that will keep them as comfortable and safe as possible during this time.
By rejecting medication-assisted detox, Narconon subjects its clients to unnecessary discomfort, pain, and danger.