As anyone who studies addiction policy can tell you, getting people to listen to rigorous, evidence-based approaches to prevent or treat addiction is a major challenge. As a result, the treatment and prevention landscapes are littered with both snake-oil salesman and true believers peddling interventions that have no scientific backing behind them. Unfortunately, the Church of Scientology has been able to take advantage of this chaos and lack of regulation by aggressively pushing Narconon, an anti-drug and anti-addiction program with little scientific backing, littered with Scientological principles, and seen by some as the first step in an indoctrination process, into schools all over the place.
The United Kingdom just found this out the hard way, according to an investigative article in the London Evening Standard. “In the past year alone 35,000 children have taken part in the Narconon anti-drugs programme, including more than 16,000 in London,” reported Benedict Moore-Bridger. He goes on to explain that “Narconon’s theories about drug dependency and treatment have been described as potentially dangerous and dismissed by some scientists as lacking medical evidence. Critics say the lectures provide a ‘soft introduction’ to Scientology.”
As Moore-Bridger notes, Narconon openly acknowledges that it is “based on the research and writings of L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Scientology religion.” But many teachers and school authorities are unaware of the connection, and may be unaware that the program doesn’t employ actual addiction experts. That might be because those experts have long viewed the program as a pseudoscientific and potentially dangerous enterprise. “We have known for years that Scientologists have been targeting schools through drugs education packages,” Professor David Nutt, former head of the U.K. government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, told Moore-Bridger. “They are the main provider of teaching aids to schools, as neither government nor local authorities put any money into this topic. It’s an outrage.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t some strange aberration. Scientology has been remarkably, distressingly successful at embedding Narconon into both schools and, in the U.S. at least, court-supported addiction-treatment programs. California is a pretty remarkable example. Back in 2004, in a story that reads very similarly to the one in the Evening Standard, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “[a] popular anti-drug program provided free to schools in San Francisco and elsewhere teaches concepts straight out of the Church of Scientology, including medical theories that some addiction experts described as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘pseudoscience.’” That reporting sparked an investigation on the part of state authorities, and the following year State Superintendent Jack O’Connell came out hard against the program, urging all California schools to drop it. “We’ll get a letter out to every school district today, saying this program is filled with inaccuracies and does not reflect widespread medical and factual evidence,” he explained. School systems around the state cut ties to the program as a result.
But Narconon never really went away. In 2014, the Chronicle reported that Narconon programming was still going on in schools all over the state. It wasn’t even much of a secret — that story noted that Clark Carr, president of Narconon International, had recently boasted in promotional materials that “[d]rug education specialists from Narconon Vista Bay travel from Monterey to South Lake Tahoe, and from Santa Rosa to Sacramento, visiting middle schools and high schools.”
When it comes to another aspect of Narconon, its treatment centers, the program appears to not only be lacking in evidence but also potentially dangerous. There have also been a series of deaths associated with Narconon facilities in the United States, Maia Szalavitz reported back in 2012, and “numerous deaths and many lawsuits have been linked to the international Narconon program” as well. As Szalavitz noted in that article, “the Narconon program is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘Purification Rundown,’ which was originally devised as part of the process required for conversion into Scientology. It involves taking high doses of vitamins and spending four to five hours a day in 150-degree saunas. This is believed to ‘detoxify’ the body and remove drug ‘residue’ that Hubbard claimed was responsible for craving.”
Unfortunately, Narconon isn’t the only way Scientology ideas have wormed their way into addiction prevention and treatment. As Science of Us noted last year, courts regularly mandate that those struggling with addiction participate in “moral reconation therapy,” an idea which, like Narconon, is littered with Scientological ideas and lacking in evidence. Of course, part of the reason we know about Narconon and MRT is that both are tied to Scientology, which makes for a sexy hook. It’s depressing to think about all the other, similar programs we don’t know about. They’re definitely out there.