Inside Scientology's Rehab Racket - Page 2

By Mark Ebner, Walter Armstrong 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?

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

(page 2)

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.

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Mark Ebner is an award-winning journalist, a New York Times bestselling author, and a familiar presence in recovery circles. Follow him on Twitter.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.