Inside Scientology's Rehab Racket
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?
L. Ron Hubbard, the prolific science fiction author and founder of the Church of Scientology, may have been judged “a mental case” (according to the F.B.I.) and “a pathological liar” (according to a Los Angeles Supreme Court judge), but to tens of thousands of his eager followers worldwide, the man discovered an approach to recovery that outclasses everything on offer from mainstream addiction science. Narconon is the spawn of Hubbard’s pseudos-cientific notions, a detox-and-rehab enterprise that has, over more than four decades, grown into a multimillion-dollar empire that currently comprises an estimated several dozen clinics encircling the globe. Its claims of unrivaled success rates with its “100 percent natural,” “drug free” approach have kept it profitable and respectable, even as the church’s reputation has tanked. Celebrity endorsements—from the likes of "former graduate" Kirstie Alley—and a savvy internet marketing campaign haven't hurt.
Yet according to the organization's many critics, including friends and family of dead, damaged, or disappeared Narconon clients, the chain of rehabs is little more than a front group for the Church of Scientology. They allege that unsuspecting clients pay as much as $30,000 for “treatment” consisting of a bizarre detox process that poses serious health hazards, followed by indoctrination in Scientology masked as drug rehabilitation. By preying on people who are desperate and vulnerable—and prime candidates for conversion—Narconon serves as one of the church’s main sources of revenue and recruitment. As the Scientology brand turns increasingly toxic—in a recent New Yorker, Lawrence Wright reported that the F.B.I. is investigating its leadership for allegedly violating human trafficking laws—the church’s survival depends more than ever on Narconon’s hold on the addiction and recovery market. (Efforts by The Fix to contact a Narconon spokesperson for comment by phone and email were not successful.)
L. Ron Hubbard was a strange candidate to emerge as the self-proclaimed scientific leader of one of the world’s largest anti-addiction enterprises. His fondness for illicit substances was well known. Yet aside from his own ingestion of a wide variety of illegal drugs including mescaline, barbiturates, and coke—described in letters written by Hubbard and his son—the exact nature of Hubbard’s “research” into addiction remains obscure. Hubbard claimed to have discovered in 1977 that the residue of L.S.D. and other “toxic” substances lingers in the body’s tissues for months and even years after use; like tiny ticking time bombs, these remnants can explode at any moment, triggering a dangerous craving or disorienting flashback that, in turn, can lead to more drug use.
The Narconon (not to be confused with Narcotics Anonymous, or N.A.) pamphlet “Ten Things Your Friends May Not Know About Drugs” offers a basic account of the science fiction master’s theories of drug addiction. “Most drugs or their by-products get stored in fat within the body and can stay there for years,” it reads. “Even occasional use has long-term effects. This is a problem because later, when the person is working or exercising or has stress, the fat burns up and a tiny amount of the drug seeps back into the blood. This triggers cravings so the person may still want drugs even years after he stopped taking them.”
To detoxify from alcohol and drugs, Hubbard recommended in his “Purification Rundown” that ailing addicts spend four or five hours a day in 150-degree saunas, while ingesting megadoses of vitamins. This sweat-out-the-bad, drink-in-the-good regimen had originally been invented by Hubbard as the first stage in the process of conversion to Scientology and becoming “clear”—free of the negativity of “engrams,” or previous incarnations. The ensuing rehabilitation course consists mainly of “training routines,” or “T.R.s"—a deep dive into Old Father Hubbard’s theory and practice of “communication,” which is a disguised version of Scientology 101.
“By the end of the sauna, you feel like a fresh, newborn baby,” testifies Marc Murphy, the brooding young British singer-songwriter who delivers a testimonial in a promotional video on the official Narconon website, narconon.org. Murphy insists that Narconon’s drug-free approach enabled him to kick a 12-year heroin addiction, compounded by a methadone and Valium habit that he acquired during dozens of previous detox attempts. “It was the easiest withdrawal that I’ve ever done,” the “student” says about his stint at a Narconon rehab outside London. “It saved my life.”
But lives have also been lost. Since Narconon's inception some 40 years ago, dozens of criminal and civil cases have been filed against its rehabs by former patients who claim to have been injured or abused, and by the relatives of people who have allegedly died as a result of bizarre and dangerous practices. “When I was at Narconon, people were taken away in ambulances and had to spend days in the hospital,” said David Love, a client at Narconon Trois-Rivieres—near Montreal—from December 2008 to May 2009, who was interviewed exclusively by The Fix. “People have died in the Quebec facility. The vitamin and sauna treatments are horrible. Patients regularly vomited and had diarrhea. Addicts with substance abuse problems have liver problems and high enzyme counts—they should in no way be taking massive amounts of vitamins like Niacin.”
Like many Narconon graduates, Love, 57, made an effortless transition from client to employee under the influence of his rehab's Scientology-based teachings. During the six months he worked at the clinic, he witnessed at least two hospitalizations: “One client had severe stomach pains and they sent him to his room to spend the whole day moaning and in pain, until he was finally taken to the hospital.” The other patient was a diabetic whose insulin was taken away when he entered the clinic, in keeping with its “drug free” philosophy. “The guy [went into insulin shock] and had to be rushed to the hospital. He was in a coma. They basically had to save his life,” said Love.
Addicted to methadone and cocaine, Love went to the Quebec Narconon thanks to a friend’s advice. Once on staff, he says he began to notice that patients were having “very bizarre reactions, because it’s a very confusing program. A lot of them were crying. One guy punched his hand through the sauna window. Another punched his fist through the freezer glass upstairs.” While confusion, crying, and even violence aren’t exactly unheard of at many legitimate rehabs, the Narconon program is designed to break a person down, he alleged. “If you take a look at those eight Narconon books [that the rehab program is based on], you’re going to ask yourself, ‘What in the hell is this?’ because there’s no medical staff there—no doctor, no nurse, no counselor, no therapist, none.”
Narconon (“Narco[tics]-Non[e]”) was founded in 1966 by William Benitez, a 32-year-od inmate who was serving 15 years on a narcotics rap at Arizona State Prison. Benitez was looking for a way to turn his life around. On a visit to the prison library he came across “an old, tattered book, Fundamentals of Thought, by L. Ron Hubbard” that (predictably) changed his life. In the book, Hubbard expresses his view that “drug addiction was nothing more than a ‘disability,’ resulting when a person ceases to use abilities essential to constructive survival.” A repeat offender and recovery flameout, Benitez applied Hubbard’s “technology,” “practical exercises” and “certain abilities”—the many T.R.'s—and managed to overcome his drug problem. A few months later, he got permission from the Arizona State Warden to teach the method to 20 fellow addicts, and soon even non-addicts in the prison—or so the official Narconon lore has it—were asking to join the program.
In 1971, a Scientology minister launched the first Narconon center in Los Angeles, an eight-bed outpatient clinic for clients just getting out of the pen. The “Purif” sauna and vitamin cocktail were added to the basic program of Scientology courses in 1973. Over the next four decades, the organization grew into one of the best-known and biggest rehab programs in the world, claiming over 100 residential facilities, offices, and information centers across 29 countries. However, most independent reports number Narconon’s actual clinics at no more than several dozen. And according to the website of the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE)—the nonprofit that runs Narconon International—there are 33 Narconon in-patient centers worldwide, including three in California, one in Nevada and the flagship facility in Oklahoma. The organization can’t even keep its own facts (or fictions) straight.
Indeed, an in-depth investigation by The Fix found that very little about the Narconon program stands up to scrutiny—scientific, statistical, or any other kind. Its widely publicized 76% (or higher) success rate is almost certainly wildly exaggerated (most recovery centers would be thrilled to see recovery rates of 20%). Many of the studies cited by Narconon to substantiate its claims were self-funded. Some were conducted by Scientologists; others are misleadingly presented. A 1981 Swedish study—funded by Narconon—found that only 23% of clients had completed the program, of whom 6.6% said they'd remained drug-free for a year. Yet by spinning the data like a top, the group promotes the study as proof of a 76% recovery rate. Paul Schofield, a former Scientologist who worked for Narconon in Australia from 2002 to 2008, told The Fix, “The success rate they promote is simply fraudulent. None of the claims that Narconon is an effective program have been independently verified.”
As for Narconon’s “drug free” approach, there’s more—in terms of health risks—than meets the eye to the “New Life Program,” widely advertised on its many websites. Hubbard held a fierce aversion to psychiatry and frequently compared psychiatrists to terrorists and mafia dons. This been interpreted by Narconon as a strict ban on meds, such as methadone and Valium, that allow addicts painfully phasing out drugs and alcohol to dial down their dependence gradually, avoiding the physical shock and mental stress of sudden withdrawal. The Narconon detox exposes clients to five-hour-a-day, 150-degree saunas, intended to clear the body of all alcohol, drugs and other toxins that Hubbard believed could trigger cravings and flashbacks. Even more bizarrely, Hubbard claimed the process is only completed when the pores discharge "black ooze."
To defend itself against charges of charlatanism, Narconon has managed to marshal scant scientific evidence. The same few names defend the organization in the media, decade after decade. One such supporter is Dr. David Root, who practices occupational medicine and is, not coincidentally, a member of the Narconon Scientific Advisory Board. Root, who claims to treat his patients with the “Hubbard detoxification program” at his Sacramento office, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1991 that drugs and other poisons “come out through the skin in the form of sebaceous, or fatty, sweat. This material is frequently visible and drips, or is rubbed off on towels. It may be black, brown, blue, green, yellow and occasionally red. Most is washed off in the shower…and so is not seen.”
This apparently explains the need for huge daily doses of vitamins, minerals, and oils, including up to 5,000 mg of niacin—a B vitamin that Hubbard invested with near-magical powers, based on his misconception that by dilating blood vessels, niacin would pump alcohol, drugs and other toxins out of the body. The resulting “niacin flush,” or discoloration of the flesh, is actually the visible toxic discharge, Hubbard claimed.
Mainstream medical experts scoff at the Narconon detox. Dr. Neal Benowitz, Chief of Clinical Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at U.C.S.F., calls Hubbard’s sweat-it-out theory “amusing” and “ridiculous.” No matter how much a person sweats through exercise or saunas, the clearance of toxins is minimal, at best. What Root described is “not biologically possible. Sweat glands excrete watery substances, not oil,” Benowitz explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. “The concentration of drugs in sweat varies very much from drug to drug. There’s very little T.H.C. in sweat. If a drug is water soluble, you’ll find it in higher concentrations in sweat. But not years later.” Dr. Thomas Brown, an addiction scientist at McGill University, adds that: “[Narconon has] a lot of underlying assumptions that are not borne out by the current state of scientific literature.” Narconon officials provided The Fix with a handful of articles that they said supported their program, mostly in obscure medical journals and including three studies by board member Root himself.
Cold turkey, heat exposure and kooky cocktails may seem ridiculous and amusing, but they can pose health hazards of special concern to alcoholics and drug addicts. Moreover, these dangers have long been known. According to a 1991 study in the American Journal of Public Health, one quarter of deaths related to sauna use were caused by alcohol or cocaine use—usually from hyperthermia, an elevation in body temperature. Given that hyperthermia is also an adverse effect of alcohol abuse, addicts undergoing the extremely elevated heat of Narconon saunas may be exposing their bodies to a compounded risk. As for megadose niacin, it can be toxic to an addict’s already-weakened liver and kidneys.
At least six Narconon clients have died—most of them in their 20s—while undertaking the program, according to documents on narconon-exposed.org, a whistle-blower website run by Dr. David Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and one of Scientology’s most dogged academic critics.
The first reported casualty was that of Jocelyne Dorfmann, 34, an epileptic who died of a seizure in 1984 at a Narconon rehab in Dijon, France, according to the 1995 "French Parliamentary Report on Cults." A budding Scientologist, she entered the program in order to be weaned off her epilepsy medication. A French judge ruled that the center’s assistant director was guilty of negligence and ordered the facility to be shut down. Christopher Arbuckle, 25, of Portland, Oregon, died when his liver failed during the vitamin-ingestion phase of the Purification Rundown—after completing several hours of required running in a sauna, according to papers filed with the Oregon State Court. (The Church of Scientology told the St. Petersburg Florida Times that the young man’s death was caused by his steroid use and pre-existing kidney problems that he failed to disclose.) In 1995, in Lombardy, Italy, Paride Ella, 22, and Giuseppe Tomba, 26, died of kidney failure within two days of each other, reported the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Scientologists associated with the Narconon center were found guilty of several crimes, although a higher court later quashed the convictions. In 2002, a 33-year-old Italian woman fell into a coma while in Narconon’s care and later died of peritonitis, an infection that is rarely fatal unless ignored. The woman had apparently been urged by staff at the Narconon center in Torre dell'Orso to ignore her symptoms and complete the program.
A particularly troubling aspect of these deaths is that they all seem to have been preventable—given prompt medical care. But by the time Narconon staffers decided to call on outside medical help, it was too late. The absence of licensed medical professionals at many Narconon rehabs, coupled with the general prohibition against drugs, including lifesaving medication, is a dangerous combination.
Touretzky, who toldThe Fix that he receives about one e-mail a week from a former Narconon client, has compiled a lengthy Narconon rap sheet that includes unsanitary accommodations, the on-site use of recreational drugs—including patients having sex with staff in exchange for drugs—and the abandonment of patients at remote bus stations late at night when they spoke out against abuses. “I hear from parents of kids who have been abused in Narconon and from people who have done drugs with their counselors,” Touretzky says. “There are all the bad things you could imagine [at a rehab] at Narconons."
One of the most serious allegations is that Narconon holds clients against their will. Daniel Locatelli, 35, of Grass Valley, Calif., claims to have been imprisoned by the Newport Beach Narconon in 2008. Two days into his stay, Locatelli grabbed his bags and bolted for the door, according to a June 2009 complaint filed by his fiancee in a California State Court, alleging fraud, breach of contract and attempts at religious conversion. The Narconon staff allegedly held him against his will for two more days, moving him to a second Narconon center, where he was allegedly denied access to a doctor to get treatment for his bronchitis. Locatelli claimed he was forced to read Scientology propaganda and to endure a demeaning ritual known by Scientologists as “bull-baiting,” during which other clients verbally humiliated him. In September 2009, Narconon settled the suit, paying Locatelli and his fiancee $22,000 ($2,000 less than the amount Locatelli had spent on his “recovery”), on condition that they did not publicly discuss the suit—or how the group’s coercive policies forced a recovering drug addict to thumb his way down the highway with his bag in hand, until a staff member finally picked him up and drove him to the airport.
Narconon staff who attempt to resign have also been imprisoned, especially if they have dirt on the organization. “I tried to leave on two or three different occasions,” said David Love. “I was held in a room against my will for two days, with the door blocked. They wouldn’t give me my ID, my driver’s license, nothing.” Narconon Trois-Rivieres, where Love worked, may have had no medical service, but its security and surveillance were abundant, according to Love. “It’s like a military compound. They have security guards, student control officers, and ethics officers. They count you every 15 minutes, just like a prison. They have a very good P.T.S. [Potential Trouble Source] interview interrogation-type system, where they will turn [clients and staff] around into wanting to stay.” After his escape, Love filed five different lawsuits against Narconon in the Canadian court system.
Yet lawsuits settled out of court and scattered media exposes have done little to diminish the group's popularity. Like the Church of Scientology, Narconon has effectively adapted itself to the internet age. With its deployment of many “drug,” “rehab,” and other recovery-related domain names, the organization’s web strategy nets many viewers. Narconon sites are wreathed with generic clip-art images of smiling families and clean-cut doctors in lab coats and stethoscopes; they feature scientific-looking manifestos and additional links to obscure, decades-old academic journals and come packed with glowing reviews. “I matured more in the few months that I was at Narconon than I did in the previous five years,” exclaims “A.S.” on the website drugrehab.net. “I now have dreams and goals again. I wake up excited about living each day and knowing that drugs wont [sic] be there.”
Claims that “certified counselors” are on-site are misleading, according to Love. “They advertise on their websites that they have certified counselors, course supervisors, withdrawal specialists. But that certificate is printed off right upstairs at Narconon—you take a little Scientology course and get it. There was nobody who had any degree from a university that had anything to do with rehabilitation or treatment.”
While ex-employees have revealed that Narconon and Scientology are united by shared leadership, shared finances and their shared devotion to the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, Narconon’s websites make no mention of the fact that Scientologists run the show. Yet even in the ‘70s, when Scientology’s popularity was at its peak, Narconon’s ties to the church were rarely publicized.
The group was initially marketed via public service announcements and free spots on local radio. “Desperate people would call the 800 number provided, and as Scientology began catching negative attention over the years, counselors were instructed to lie and say Narconon was in no way affiliated with the Church,” Patty Pieniadz, a former Narconon executive director, whose condemnation of the rehab is now as fervent as her former ardor, told The Fix.
Pieniadz’s account of Narconon operations is instructive. In 1973, Pieniadz, then a 19-year-old heroin addict, entered a Narconon facility in New London, Conn., for the modest sum of $50 a month. After several months, she successfully ditched her dependence on dope, but in the process replaced one addiction with another. “I finally was able to kick heroin,” she says, “but Scientology became my new obsession.” In short order, Pieniadz was hired as the New London facility’s “chief recruiter.” By age 22, she had become the executive director, tasked with securing government funding by promoting Narconon’s drug-free teachings in public high schools. By all accounts, she was a great success. “I personally brought in over a quarter million dollars,” Pieniadz recalled.
Undisclosed to students or clients was the fact that the success of rehabilitation depended on the client’s indoctrination in Scientology. “It was completely understood by Narconon staff that unless the patient did the entire Scientology Drug Rundown, there was little chance that they would permanently stay off drugs,” Pieniadz said. “The unwritten final step of the Narconon program was to acknowledge you were a Scientologist. Only then were you were considered to be rehabilitated.”
A 1984 internal Narconon document acquired by the Narconon Exposed website proves that this final step was not always unwritten. The document features a flow chart showing each stage of a person’s progression through the program. There is “Detoxification/Withdrawal,” the “Drug Education/Orientation Lecture,” the “Hard T.R.'s (0–9) Course,” the “Purification Program,” the “Objectives,” the “Repair Action,” the “Drug Rundown,” a second “Repair Action,” and “The Way to Happiness Rundown.” Finally, upon exiting Narconon, the purified, repaired and run-down graduate is shown the “route to nearest org for further services if individual so desires.” The “org” is of course a Scientology center, and the “services” are additional Scientology trainings. At Narconon, instruction in the “hard T.R.'s (0–9)” includes T.R. 8, which involves commanding an ashtray to “stand up” and “sit down,” and thanking it for doing so, as loudly as possible. Former Scientologists say that the purpose of the drill is to “beam intention” into the ashtray to make it move. More advanced skills can presumably be acquired in Scientology’s higher learning.
Dr. Steven Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist who specializes in religions and cults, has studied the Narconon conversion process. “If clients become convinced that ‘auditing’ has contributed to their improvement, they may wish to expand their practice of it by enrolling in Scientology courses,” he told The Fix. “They may not realize that their ‘perceptions’ of what caused their recovery is the result of factors other than what they think.”
Converting addicts into Scientologists is essential not only to clients' rehabilitation, but to the Narconon business model’s success. Said Kent: “Narconon is a source of revenue and recruitment for Scientology, not to mention a public relations opportunity to show an alleged solution to the widespread community problem of drug addiction.” According to Kent, Narconon is a legally independent entity that pays Scientology for its use of Scientology-based “technology” via a licensing arrangement with ABLE. Like Burger King or T.G.I.F., Narconon operates like a franchise. Scientologists play prominent roles at many of the individual franchises, although not all are owned by church members. Narconon also funnels money directly to the church in more illicit ways, like paying exorbitant rents for church-owned office space, in violation of the laws governing nonprofits, according to Dr. David Touretzky.
Given the close ties between Scientology and Narconon, it’s no surprise that the drug program’s reputation continues to enjoy endorsements and other support from the church’s famous Hollywood hawkers. Adding to the notoriety earned as a drama queen of fat, Kirstie Alley has served as the Narconon’s official spokesperson since 1990. Alley entered the rehab in 1979 to combat a serious coke addiction; today she credits the program with saving her life. John Travolta, another Scientology stalwart, is also a member of the Narconon advisory board, as is David Miscavige, Scientology’s controversial leader.
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.
Sociologist Steven Kent told The Fix that he approached the F.B.I. a number of years ago with similar concerns about Scientology’s forced labor and re-education program, “but got nowhere.” He said that he’s skeptical about whether the current investigation will result in charges, especially if the allegations come only from adults. “But if the accusations of abuse come from young adults who report on their childhood and teen abuses, the agency is more likely to act,” he added. “If a number of current children defect and speak about criminal behaviors that adults forced upon them, then the chances are very good that the F.B.I. will take action.”
Critics also wonder if the I.R.S. will pursue the church for possible violation of its tax-exempt status via its involvement with practice management programs to dentists, chiropractors, veterinarians and other professionals—and, of course, with Narconon. Given these stakes, Narconon’s ability to raise money and convert addicts—to keep feeding the beast—has never been more critical to the survival of the church.
At its height, Narconon persuaded many of the nation’s most powerful school boards that it had a magic bullet to combat teen drug use. Supported by millions in tax-payer funding and donations from local businesses, Narconon’s traveling troupe of lecturers criss-crossed the country, reaching at least 1.5 million students a year. Though its educators sometimes won high marks for their ability to grab glassy-eyed students’ attention, Narconon educators, versed in L. Ron’s pseudoscience, flunked out when it came to the ABC's of actual drug facts. Over the decades, most US school districts have given Narconon the boot.
Yet the drug education program has managed to circumvent schools that have shunned the program, marketing their services to private and parochial schools that are less averse to Scientology dogma. Just as it targeted American Indians in its successful effort to build its flagship Narconon shop on tribal lands in Oklahoma, it now appears to have teens in poor urban and rural America in its cross-hairs. In 2009, the organization enlisted young hip-hop and rap artists to pitch its “drug free” message.
Still, Narconon’s growing list of survivors and other critics have their own message to convey. “Narconon’s a front-group for the Church of Scientology—another way to get new people into the system,” said Patty Pieniadz, the former executive director of a Narconon facility. “It’s a recipe for disaster and a scam.” As for David Love, he settled out of court his case alleging psychological harassment against his former employer on March 25, but Narconon has his four remaining lawsuits to contend with.” They threatened to harm me, to hunt me down and destroy me,” Love told The Fix. “I entered a Narconon for treatment for my addiction. I ended up in the hospital for post-traumatic stress.”
Mark Ebner is an award-winning journalist, a New York Times bestselling author, and a familiar presence in recovery circles. Walter Armstrong is the former Editor-in-Chief of Poz, and has worked as an editor for a variety of other health-related publications. He is now Deputy Editor of The Fix. Additional research and reporting by James Partridge