Narconon is a rehabilitation programme for addicts run on a system devised by Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Experts say it is based on junk science and potentially lethal.
The way Narconon tells it, their addiction treatment programme is about as good as it gets.
Studies have shown that the programme has a 75-percent success rate, the organisation claims on its website.1 “This is one of the best success rates in the field of addiction recovery,” it says.2
Narconon puts its success down to the unique system it follows, which was developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
“Recovery is possible,” says the website. “Since 1966, thousands have achieved productive, drug-free lives through doing the Narconon rehab program.”3
But if all this seems too good to be true, that's because it is, say the critics.
A 2008 study, commisioned by the Norwegian Health Directorate, conducted a view of the relevant scientific literature.
It looked at six studies on the effectiveness of the Narconon programme before reporting back. It concluded:
There is currently no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of Narconon as a primary or secondary drug prevention program. To the extent our extensive database search could determine, no randomized controlled trials about the program have been conducted...4
In the 2004, two leading critics of Scientology, Chris Owen and Dave Touretzky reached a similar conclusion.
The research in Narconon Exposed also went over the lies that Hubbard had told about his own scientific credentials as detailed by previous writers.5
After an exhaustive examination of the evidence advanced by Narconon in support of its claims to scientific validity and effectiveness, Owen and Touretzky concluded that their claims of incredible success rates were just that: incredible; unbelievable. They wrote:
It has to be said, in fairness, that the paucity of the data means that one can no more reliably say that Narconon does not work than that it does. There is simply too little evidence to tell either way.
What can comfortably be said, though, is that Narconon's claims of very high success levels are wholly unreliable; a close examination of what evidence does exist shows that it has invariably been misquoted, misused or quite simply lied about by Narconon. In short, its claimed success rates are not credible and should not be believed.6
Having it both ways
Narconon describes itself as a non-profit, secular drug outreach programme, and while mentioning Hubbard in its literature, plays down any links to Scientology. You will be hard put to find a direct reference to Scientology on its website: Hubbard is described simply as “an author and humanitarian”.7
Scientology, on its websites, vaunts Narconon as “the most effective drug rehabilitation and prevention programme on Earth”. But it is careful to describe it as an outreach programme that it sponsors, rather than an integral part of its operations.8
For a number of reasons however, the claim that Scientology and Narconon are entirely distinct entities – that there are no lines of control from the former to the latter – is difficult to sustain.
First, even a cursory look at the components of the Narconon programme reveals a striking similarity to Scientology's own courses.
Narconon, for example, runs something called the “New Life Detoxification Program”, which it describes as a “combination of exercise, induced sweating in a sauna, and nutritional supplements”.
This programme, Narconon claims, reduces or eliminates drug or alcohol cravings and the symptoms associated with addiction, such as depression, irritability and fatigue.9
But to all intents and purposes, this programme is the same as the one run inside Scientology itself, where it is known as the Purification Rundown.
During the 2009 fraud trial of several leading Scientologists and two Scientology organisations in France, the Paris court examined the Purification Rundown in some detail.
There, Scientology insisted it was a religious ritual.
“This is nothing to do with medicine,” one Scientologist told the court. “We are curing nothing. It is a purification rite, in which we have no pretensions towards curing anything.”10
Scientology's lawyers brought in a former emeritus professor at Paris's Sorbonne University, ethnologist and anthropologist Philippe Laburthe-Tolra, to testify as to the Rundown's religious credentials.11
But they also flew in Dr David Root from the United States to support claims as to the Rundown's efficacy as a detoxification programme. Root has appeared on the Narconon website to endorse the programme.12
In its judgment, the court noted what it said was a blurring of the lines between the religious and the scientific and concluded that Scientology was trying to have it both ways.
For while the defendants may have described the Rundown in spiritual terms, Scientology's own literature used pseudo-scientific terms to vaunt the programme's efficacy, it noted.13
Three defendants were convicted on charges relating to the illegal practice of pharmacy for the sale and distribution of what experts said were the dangerously high doses of vitamins used in the Rundown.14
'Hypnotic' training routines
Another feature of Narconon is a course which, it claims, gets subjects “into better communication with others and with the environment...
“Each is a specific drill on the parts of communication and how to get oneself understood and how to communicate with others.”15
Again, the Communication Course is also a key element of Scientology: the training routines, or TRs, that comprise the course are often offered to relatively new recruits to the movement.
The TRs are mainly two-person exercises: in one, you have to stare at each other without talking or moving (TR 0: confronting). In another one person shouts abuse at the other while the other tries not to react in any way: then the roles are reversed (TR 0: Bullbait).
In another, you command an inanimate object, such as an ash tray, to move, basically by shouting at it (TR 8: Tone 40 on an Object).
Former member Marc Headley, one of the movement's leading critics, has described how he did this exercise with celebrity member Tom Cruise. The details are sketchy in Headley's book, Blown for Good, but Tony Ortega coaxed some more details from him for a piece for his Village Voice blog.
“You tell the ashtray, 'Sit in that chair',” Marc told him.
“Then you actually go over and put the ashtray on the chair. Then you tell the ashtray, 'Thank you.' Then you do the same thing with the bottle, and the book. And you do this for hours and hours.”
In God's name, why? Ortega asked.
“It was supposed to rehabilitate your ability to control things. And to be controlled,” Headley told him.16
Scientologists call this kind of shouting a Tone 40 command.
Headley is not alone among former members in arguing that participants are learning not just to give orders, but to take them too. Cult expert Steven Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, has called these training routines the most overt use of hypnosis by any cult.
The fact is that most if not all of the Narconon materials derive from Scientology, according to sociologist Professor Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta, Canada – arguably the leading academic expert on Scientology.
“I'd say that L. Ron Hubbard included in Scientology techniques, principles, morals etc, that transferred... directly into the Narcon programme,” he said in a recent court deposition.17
A final point on the link between Scientology and Narconon: the movement's own leader, David Miscavige, underlined the connection in a famous 1993 speech.
This was when Miscavige announced that the movement's battle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service was over – and that Scientology had won tax-exempt status as a church. He made much of the fact that the “non-religious groups” that Scientology sponsored “which use LRH's tech to improve society” were also covered.
“All such groups have been recognized as fully tax exempt!” he declared. And Narconon, of course, was among them.18
Over the years, the science behind the Narconon programme has been harshly criticised by several experts.
In 1989, when Narconon set up a 75-bed facility on Indian territory in Chilocco, Oklahama, editor of the local paper Newkirk Herald Journal started investigating. He asked Mark Palmer, a local medical doctor with some experience with other rehabilitation programmes, for his view.19
He offered the following comments after reviewing Narconon's official literature:
The material is full of generalizations that have no substantiation in fact. There are internal inconsistent statements. There is no documentation.
The Purification Rundown is somewhat patterned after many reputable detoxification programs in which diet, exercise, education and behavioral modification are used. But due to the above mentioned deficiencies as well as several outright untruths, I think that it is fair to say that the Purification Rundown is without merit.20
The Journal also asked Bruce A. Roe, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Oklahoma University to review the official literature on Narconon. Roe did not mince his words either.
Overall the program proposed by Mr. Hubbard is pure unadulterated "cow pies". It is filled with some scientific truth but mainly is illogical and the conclusions drawn by Mr. Hubbard are without any basis in scientific fact.21
Nor has the criticism come exclusively from the United States.
In Sweden, the National Board of Health and Welfare asked Professor of Pharmacology Folke Sjoqvist to give his view of the science behind the Narconon programme.
Reporting back in November 1996, he concluded:
[T]here is no documentation to show that the Hubbard method of detoxification from drug abuse conforms to scientific standards and medical experience.
On the contrary, one may from a pharmacological point of view strongly question the idea of using enforced sweating to expel drugs from the body.
The risks and side effects of the treatment method have also not been evaluated in a serious way. Methods that have not been evaluated and/or rest on incorrect theories should not be used in Swedish medical care.
Medical doctors are to prescribe vitamins in the doses recommended...22
The professor joined an already extensive list of qualified professionals who have dismissed the supposedly scientific basis of Hubbard's detoxification programme and warned of its potential dangers.23
But perhaps the most damning single document on Narconon was drawn up by the Oklahoma state investigators.
The Oklahoma report
As concern grew over the unlicensed activities of the Narconon Chilocco New Life Center – thanks in large part to the investigative series run by the Newkirk Herald Journal – state officials finally acted.
They asked for their specialists to investigate and in 1991 the state Board of Mental Health delivered its findings. The board's “Findings of Fact” amounted to a damning indictment of the facility.24
It was scathing about the science underpinning the sauna-vitamins-exercise detoxification programme, rejecting Hubbard's claim that drugs could be sweated out of one's body.
“[T]here is no scientific basis for the technique,” it said.
It was not impressed either by the one-size-fits-all approach to treating addicts. "No scientific evidence was produced to show that all drug addictions are properly treated in the same manner."
The report also expressed concern about the massive doses of vitamins and minerals handed out during treatment: according to “the more credible medical evidence,” this was potentially dangerous, it said.
Worse still, it noted, the programme also "exposes its patients to the risk of delayed withdrawal phenomena such as seizures, delirium and/or hallucinations." It was all the more dangerous because Narconon used unqualified, non-medical staff who might miss or misinterpret the symptoms, it added.
“Narconon employs staff inadequately educated and trained in the care and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse clients,” it said. “Such a practice endangers the safety, health and/or the physical or mental well being of the clients of Narconon.”25
The dangers of having medically unqualified staff imposing a one-size-fits-all programme were illustrated when inspectors visited the Chilocco centre. A student, the report noted, “...was found with a potentially dangerous low level of potassium which could lead to cramps, (muscular, skeletal problems) and cardiac arrhythmia.”26
Perhaps unaware of Hubbard's views on psychiatry, the panel put its finger on another weakness of the Narconon programme: it failed to take into account the well-established link between drug abuse and psychiatric disorders.
“[A] chemical dependency disorder may co-exist with or be secondary to a specific psychiatric illness, such as schizophrenia or major depression, which should be treated by established psychiatric procedures,” it said.
This ignorance – or phobia – of the psychiatric dimension, had serious implications, it noted. They had seen evidence that some clients had been taken off psychiatric medication without regard for the consequences.
Whether they knew it or not however, they were knocking on the wrong door. The problem here was that for Hubbard psychiatry is the root of all evil – and that dogma had been imported wholesale not just into Scientology, but into Narconon.
The report expressed unease at Narconon's practice of hiring former students of the programme to work there straight after having completed it. There should be a delay between graduation from the programme and recruitment “...to ensure sobriety and to avoid putting patients in contact with addicts who are not fully recovered,” it said.
It expressed concern too about the amount of time Narconon devoted to activities unrelated to drug and alcohol abuse treatment or addiction issues. Apparently they did not see the value of shouting at ash trays.
The report also had a problem with the vague objectives set for the students – to have a clear mind, for example. How was one supposed to measure success here? “This objective is essentially meaningless,” the report noted.
“In order for a bonafide drug treatment plan to be effective it is essential to have individualized measured objectives which Narconon's treatment plan lacks.”27
The inspectors were uneasy too, about the use of “touch assists”, a kind of laying on of hands practised by Scientologists to help ease physical pain.
This was hardly appropriate in the context of vulnerable individuals in a rehab environment, it argued: “An accepted standard in such programs is for the patients to keep their hands to themselves.”28
Summing up, the inspectors said that Narconon had failed to show that its system was either safe or effective: in fact, it said, the evidence pointed the other way.
Their conclusion, in summary, was that the treatment offered by Narconon Chilocco was not just ineffective; it was also medically unsafe.
But while the state authorities denied Narconon its certification, the centre nevertheless managed to stay open.
Since it was on Indian territory, the state found it could not actually force it to close.
In 1992, Narconon won an injunction from the Oklahoma State Supreme Court to stay a lower court order that had backed the state's bid to shut Narconon down. This allowed it to keep operating while it appealed that lower court ruling.29
Narconon eventually found a way to stay open by winning accreditation from a private agency rather than the state – the Arizona-based Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. And this allowed it to seek – and win – exemption from state accreditation from the Oklahoma state authorities.
By the end of 1992, despite the damning report from its own medical experts, the state authorities appeared to have thrown in the towel and granted it exemption from accreditation.
It was a decision that was to come back and haunt them.30
Next in this series: Narconon is 'Casualty Contact'
4“A brief summary and evaluation evidence base for Narconon prevention intervention”, a 2008 report commissioned by the Norwegian Health Directorate. The quote is from page 16 of the document.
9“Drug Detox Program: The Narconon New Life Detoxification Program” at the Narconon website. It also helps the participants think more clearly, improves memory and attention span, boosts energy and increases one's sense of well-being, the movement claims.
11One defendant described the Rundown to investigators as a religious ritual comparable to fasting in other religions '“Purification Rundown: defendants”); another specifically compared it to the Muslim period of fasting over Ramadam (“Alain Rosenberg I”). Scientology's lawyers even tried to argue that prosecuting Scientologists over the Rundown violated their right to religious freedom. See for example, “...for the defendant Jacquart”
13Page 88 of the original 2009 judgment.
14These convictions were confirmed on appeal in February 2012.
18 See Chris Owen’s transcript and analysis of Miscavige's 9th anniversary event of the International Association of Scientologists on October 8, 1993. Tony Ortega, at his new blog, Ortega Underground, recently posted old footage from one of David Miscavige's rare interviews. Back in 1992 on Nightline, he was singing Narconon's praises and effectively claiming their supposed achievements as Scientology's.
This sense that Scientology is trying to have it both ways, enjoy the tax benefits of both its spiritual status and its supposedly scientific method, is nicely summed by one of the movement's own terms: “religious technology”.
Scientology even has something called the Religious Technology Center, which holds all the trademarks of the “powerful technologies of Dianetics and Scientology” and ensures that the “tech” is correctly applied. Miscavige is its chairman. See the RTC website.
22“Expert advice on Narconon given to the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare” translated from the Swedish by Catarina Pamnell. Of course it was the prescribing of massive doses of vitamins by unqualified people during the Purification Rundown that led to some of the 2009 Paris convictions.
24“Findings of Fact regarding the Narconon-Chilocco Application For Certification by theBoard of Mental Health, State of Oklahoma” from the Source Documents section at Narconon Exposed.
25The report also referred to what it said was “substantial medical literature” suggesting that sauna therapy could pose a significant risk to intravenous heroin addicts. The problem was that “such drug use may impair normal physiological response and problems associated with high temperature saunas which could be detected.”
26As we shall in future posts, the issue of unqualified staff is one that has become an important factor in at least one lawsuit against Narconon.
27Acquiring a clear mind may have been meaningless for the authors of the “Findings of Fact”: but attaining the state of Clear is a prized objective for any practising Scientologist (regardless of whether it actually means anything or not). Among the definitions Scientology offers for a Clear – someone who has reached the state of Clear – is “...a being who no longer has his own reactive mind (another Scientology term), the hidden source of irrational behavior, unreasonable fears, upsets and insecurities.” So that's clear then.
As we shall see in future posts, another parallel between Scientology and Narconon is the use of “success stories” in which people testify to their “wins” after completing a course. This, presumably, was one way Narconon measured the successful completion of the vague course objectives to which the experts were objecting.
28It is worth quoting in full the report's reservations about the use of “touch assists”.
“Touch assists involve massages between patients in rooms by themselves. Narconon has both male and female patients who are involved in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
“This practice of touch assists could likely lead to improper sexual contact between drug addicts or alcoholics in the process of recovery. An accepted standard in such programs is for the patients to keep their hands to themselves.
“The practice of touch assists between male and female patients who are recovering drug addicts or alcoholics in private rooms renders the program unsafe in this respect.”
There have been a number of allegations of rape at Narconon centres.
30 “Kaws Defy Tonkawas In Narconon Approval” by Michael McNutt, July 10, 1992, The Oklahoman; “Narconon Gets State Mental Health Exemption” by Michael McNutt in The Oklahoman, August 15, 1992; and “Narconon gets Licence” in the news-in-brief section, November 1, 1992, The Oklahoman. See also the background information contained in Oklahoma State Representative Brian Renegar's August 24, 2012 statement, “Renegar to Revisit Rehabilitation Certification in Light of Deaths at Narconon”.