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Scientology's Narconon Rehab Clinics: Are They a Racket Trying to Make New Converts?

Narconon promises desperate addicts that they can sweat out their demons (and gobs of poisonous green ooze) by spending hours in sweltering saunas. But is it a real rehab?

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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.