Inside Scientology's Rehab Racket

Inside Scientology's Rehab Racket

By Mark Ebner 03/27/11

Narconon promises desperate addicts that they can sweat out their demons (and gobs of green ooze) by spending hours in sweltering saunas. But is it a real rehab? Or a front trying to lure vulnerable converts to a declining cult?

Image: 
The Narconon Way: No meds, hours in 150-degree saunas and dangerous
doses of vitamins.

(page 5)

Yet when Narconon’s role as recruiter for Scientology is publicized, the rehab’s response is often to deny the charge while attacking its critics as pro-drug. In 1991, protesters turned out in force in Chilocco, Oklahoma, to block Narconon’s bid to build a “flagship” residential facility on tribal lands. The opposition was partly based on a consensus that they did not want a Scientology factory in their backyard. But after the Oklahoma Board of Mental Health went to the trouble of investigating the Narconon treatment program, it determined that it was not only dangerous but ineffective. In denying Narconon a permit to operate, it concluded: "No scientifically well-controlled independent, long-term outcome studies were found that directly and clearly establish the effectiveness of the Narconon program for the treatment of chemical dependency and the more credible evidence establishes Narconon's program is not effective…[or] medically safe." During the ensuing media melee, Narconon spokesman Gary Smith told local media that Narconon’s “sole intention is to get people off drugs.” Smith bitterly denounced the critics of the program as “outside sources…either connected to selling drugs or they’re using drugs.” Declining to be more specific, Smith merely said, “Trust me, I know.”

In recent years, Narconon claims to have instituted rules protecting addicts against any recruitment efforts. But according to a statement made in May 2002 by Devinder Luthra, then president of Narconon Canada, at a session of the Special Committee on Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the House of Commons, about 40% of Narconon clients become employees.

In the course of these investigations, reporters for The Fix contacted a dozen different Narconon facilities, presenting themselves as addicts in immediate need of help. Without exception, Narconon’s 24-hour “intake counselors” lauded the program’s success rates, while making a play for the money. Clients are typically expected to undergo three months of treatment for a flat fee of $27,000, which must be paid prior to admittance. Pressed for specifics of the program, the information became notably vague. When asked what relationship Narconon had to Scientology, most of the Narconon operator’s deftly deflected the question.

The reticence of these Narconon representatives is not hard to understand. The past decade has not been good to Scientology, which has been hurt by a series of high-profile defections, increasing media scrutiny and an inability to attract new members—and money. Much of the damage to the church's reputation has been self-inflicted, most notably by its pet celebrities. Tom Cruise’s antics—an extended tirade against psychiatry and antidepressants, for example, and an effort to persuade 9/11 firefighters with respiratory ailments to throw away their inhalers and meds in favor of Scientology rundowns—have been P.R. disasters. A high-profile investigation into the death of John Travolta’s son caused further problems.

The internet has made it increasingly difficult for the church to suppress its bad press. Dozens of anti-Narconon blogs have sprung up across the web, launched by former clients and staff, who publish their critiques at such sites as narconon-exposed.org, holysmoke.org, and crackpots.org. In 2010, an online network of hackers and computer geeks called Anonymous mobilized thousands of masked people to protest outside Scientology’s “spiritual headquarters” in Clearwater, Florida. Anonymous alleges on its website whyweprotest.net that the church has engaged in "hundreds of illegal actions, fraudulent activities, and human rights violations."

Scientology owes its sinister reputation partly to the combativeness it displays in the face of criticism. For years, the church has been accused of using lawsuits, psychological warfare and dirty tricks to silence its adversaries. It has spent millions to investigate and sue writers, government officials, disaffected ex-members and other alleged “enemies.” As far back as 1959, Hubbard warned that illness and even death would befall critics of Scientology, known within the church as “suppressive persons.”

After his resignation from Narconon Trois Rivieres in November 2009, David Love claimed that he received repeated threats from Sue Chubbs, Narconon's director of production. Most chillingly, documents indicate that Chubbs posted the words “Enemy” and “Fair Game” on Love’s Facebook page. These are specific church jargon terms, signaling to other Scientologists that he ”may be deprived of property or 
injured by any means and by any Scientologist,” Love explained.

The secrets Scientology is battling in courtrooms (and other, darker venues) to keep hidden allegedly include criminal activity and human rights violations that may have longtime leader David Miscavige doing a little sweating of his own. In his New Yorker profile, describing the director and screenwriter Paul Haggis’ recent angry public defection from the church, Lawrence Wright reports that the F.B.I. opened an investigation into the church in 2009, after a group of top-level defectors began telling the press—and, in some cases, filing lawsuits—alleging that the church runs a series of brutal re-education camps, where members are imprisoned, sometimes for years at a time, and even tortured. Based on accounts by former Scientologists interviewed by the F.B.I., the investigation appears to be focused on whether the organization has run afoul of human trafficking laws, including violations involving minors.