EDMONTON - A drug and alcohol treatment program backed by the controversial Church of Scientology is promising addicted Albertans an extraordinary 70-per-cent success rate.
The Narconon program is marketed as "100-per-cent natural," and prescribes intensive saunas, exercise and high doses of vitamins to cleanse the body of "radiation, drugs and toxins."
Advertisements for the Narconon program have appeared in recent months on Edmonton's CKUA radio and in weekly newspapers throughout the province.
Addiction experts and academics in Canada, the United States and Europe have long warned the Narconon program has no scientific basis for its claims.
University of Alberta sociologist Dr. Steve Kent said the program may serve another purpose.
"The program provides the Scientology organization with claims of socially beneficial programs," said Kent, a world-recognized expert in the Church of Scientology. "It provides some Scientologists with employment and it certainly provides the Scientology organization with income and a possible recruitment vehicle for new members."
Narconon spokesman Brad Melnychuk of Toronto insists the program has verified its results, and he said no attempt is made to use it to recruit new members to Scientology. He said rules are in place to ensure "vulnerable" drug- or alcohol-addicted individuals are not subjected to any pressure from Scientologists working for Narconon. He said only four or five per cent of the addicts who go through Narconon programs become Scientologists.
Melnychuk is the executive director of the Association for Better Living and Education Canada (ABLE Canada), a non-profit group that offers several programs, including Narconon, that are based on the teachings of the late American author L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
Scientology emphasizes self-improvement and rejects psychiatry and psychotherapy as inhumane pseudo-science. Believers hold that mental well-being can be achieved though "auditing," a process of discussing harmful unconscious memories of past trauma, including those in previous lives.
Begun by Hubbard in the 1950s, Scientology now boasts 5,200 churches, missions and groups worldwide, and operates drug rehabilitation and education programs through ABLE Canada, which incorporated in Calgary in March. Scientology boasts several Hollywood stars as members, including Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, who says the Narconon program saved her life.
Melnychuk said the full four-month program costs about $20,000. Albertans are referred to Narconon's residential facility in Trois Rivieres, Que., northeast of Montreal.
Since 2002, 37 Albertans have graduated from the program: 14 from Calgary, six from Edmonton and the remainder from rural Alberta. The most common drug addictions reported by Albertans were to crack cocaine and painkillers, Melnychuk said.
He said the program's 70-per-cent success rate is measured by graduates of the program who remain drug- and alcohol-free for two years.
Various independent assessments of Narconon's physiological claims have found they are not based on widely accepted medical and scientific evidence.
"These kinds of claims, if you're looking at them scientifically, have to be corroborated by data," said Dr. Tom Brown, a drug rehab researcher at McGill University in Montreal. "They have a lot of underlying assumptions that are not really borne out by the current state of scientific literature."
Narconon's claimed success rate of 70 per cent has also been questioned.
"Well-designed, well-implemented, well-managed, evidence-based programs will yield around a 30-per-cent reduction in use," said Dr. John Weekes, a senior research analyst with the Canadian Centre of Substance Abuse in Ottawa, adding that drug addiction researchers would "freak out with elation" if they ever encountered a scientifically verified program that produced a success rate of 70 per cent.
"We are always hoping for something really high, but really high in this world realistically is about 30 per cent."
Melnychuk insists there are studies that prove Narconon's program not only works as claimed, but also produces the 70-per-cent success rate. He directed a Journal reporter to studies on the Narconon website, which prominently features a scientific advisory panel.
"Not all of them are Scientologists, but a lot of them either are or have close affiliations with the organization," the U of A's Kent said. He said there have been independent studies of the program, but they showed the success rate is very low.
Brown, the McGill researcher, said Narconon, while not scientifically substantiated, may be no worse than many other popular drug and alcohol rehab programs that are also not backed by science. He said an important element in the effectiveness of a rehab program is the addict's belief in the program.
"Treatments that are actively sought by clients and are valued by the client tend to be the most effective," he said.
Based on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the Narconon program claims drug residues remain indefinitely in body fat, causing people to experience repeated drug flashbacks and cravings.
The Narconon "New Life Detoxification Program" prescribes a regime of intensive saunas and exercise to sweat out from the body the residues that cause addiction. The physiological detoxification program is followed by several rehab programs for the addict's potential psychological problems, including the "Ups & Downs in Life Course" and "The Way to Happiness Course."
Narconon spokesman Brad Melnychuk said he has personally witnessed the effectiveness of the sauna program. "You can actually see the toxins come out," he said. "You see the colour of the skin change, you can test the sweat, put it under a microscope and see in fact that these toxins do come out and you can see the person change daily and get better."
Narconon has alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation centres throughout North America and Europe. One of the best known is Arrowhead in Oklahoma. Narconon applied to the state's board of mental health for certification. In a report, the board noted that most drugs are removed from the body through the liver, kidney and lungs. "Although minute quantities of some drugs may be found in sweat, the amount represents a small fraction of drug elimination," the board's report stated.
Source: Journal Staff, Edmonton