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Is Scientology's Narconon Killing Patients?

With seven deaths since 2005, Scientology's Narconon flagship may finally face criminal charges. The bigger scandal is that faith-based addiction programs are embraced as primary treatment. Where does that leave AA?
 
 
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Narconon, the Scientology-affiliated rehab is under investigation by the state of Oklahoma, following three patient deaths within the last nine months. Last Wednesday, the inquiry into the July 19 death of 20-year-old Stacy Murphy was expanded to include the April death of 21-year-old Hillary Holten and the October death of 32-year-old Gabriel Graves. The state district attorney has asked the sheriff’s department to deepen its investigation.

The involvement of law-enforcement agencies—not simply regulatory authorities—suggests the possibility of criminal charges against those involved with the deaths. The facility, Narconon Arrowhead, is located near Canadian, Oklahoma. It is not only licensed by the state and listed on the federal addiction program locator, but also accredited by  CARF, an organization that claims on its website to “focus on quality, results” in certifying treatment programs.

The 2009 death of 28-year-old Kaysie Dianne Wernick, who was transferred from Narconon Arrowhead to a nearby hospital while suffering a respiratory infection, resulted in an out-of-court settlement of a civil negligence lawsuit, the terms of which have not been disclosed. There have been  three other deaths at that Narconon facility alone since 2005. Over the years, as  The Fix has reported, numerous deaths and many lawsuits have been linked to the international Narconon program.

Oklahoma assistant district attorney Richard Hull told the  Tulsa Worldthat, “After looking at the [earlier] report and additional witness statements, the District Attorney’s Office has requested the Sheriff’s Office to further investigate,” and that full autopsy and toxicology reports have not yet been received. A spokesperson for Narconon Arrowhead told  Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Weekly that program staff found the deaths “deeply saddening” and their loss “has taken an extreme emotional toll on us as well.” Narconon representatives have also told the media that they are cooperating fully with the investigation.

As The Fix reported earlier, 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.

There is no scientific evidence, however, that drug “residue” causes craving or that mega-doses of vitamins and marathon super-hot saunas are effective elements in addiction treatment. Indeed, for people who are medically fragile or who have recently taken certain classes of drugs including alcohol, amphetamines and cocaine, intense heat without breaks for relief could potentially lead to hyperthermia, which can be deadly. One study found that 25% of deaths in saunas were associated with alcohol or stimulant use.

Narconon also shares Scientology’s fierce opposition to psychiatry and the use of psychiatric medications, meaning that even if the rest of its methods were evidence-based, it would not be able to effectively treat half of all people with addictions who suffer from co-existing conditions like depression, nor would it utilize the state-of-the-art treatments that include medication. The belief that all psychiatric conditions can be treated via Hubbard’s techniques would not seem to support effective screening and referral for care for these disorders.

In fact, when Narconon was originally fishing for official and popular support to build Narconon Arrowhead rehab in the late 1980s, the  Oklahoma State Board of Mental Health flatly denied approval, pointing out that there was no credible evidence that the program (which also included indoctrination in the teachings of Hubbard) was effective for chemical dependency and that evidence-based effective addiction treatment suggests that, on the contrary, Narconon is very unlikely to work. Nonetheless, Narconon purchased tribal land, without disclosing its ties to Scientology (its typical MO), and got the rehab up and running. Eventually, despite a flurry of negative publicity, it was able to win state-board approval.