Pubdate: Sun, 30 Mar 2003
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2003 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Robert Farley


Narconon, A Drug Treatment Program With Scientology Backing, Now Wants 
Taxpayer Assistance.

CLEARWATER -- At Tampa Bay's newest alternative to mainstream drug
treatment, the license issued by the state hangs next to commendations
from the Church of Scientology.

Narconon, a controversial drug treatment program based on techniques
developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, has opened its first
Florida facility in Clearwater in a commercial park off U.S. 19.

Past the meticulously clean lobby are classrooms where recovering
addicts take a series of life improvement courses incorporating the
same concepts and principles one encounters in introductory
Scientology courses at a church mission.

Farther back are treadmills, stationary bikes and two saunas. This is
where clients work through a detoxification program mirroring a
Scientology ritual called the purification rundown. It purports to
remove from fatty tissues toxic substances and drug residues, which
can cause cravings for more drugs, according to Narconon literature.

The facility's client list, its director said, is mostly mid-to
upper-level executives -- doctors, lawyers and business professionals
- -- who are recreational drug users. The staff of five includes a
certified addictions specialist and a registered nurse.

Critics contend that Narconon -- a program now 37 years old with 11
treatment facilities nationally -- is a recruitment tool for
Scientology. Narconon International president Clark Carr calls the
charge "baloney," but concedes 10 to 15 percent who complete the
program become Scientologists.

The director of the new Clearwater Narconon, Cheryl Alderman, a
Clearwater resident and a longtime Scientologist, sank $100,000 of her
own money into the venture and opened it quietly 10 months ago.

She obtained a license from the state's Department of Children and
Families to operate as an outpatient detox center. The program got a
boost from Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst, who issued a proclamation
for "Narconon Day."

Now Alderman plans to do what no other Narconon program in the country
does: Get taxpayer assistance in the form of state and federal grants.

She also plans to seek referrals from local court systems and
permission to teach a Narconon-based prevention program in Pinellas
public schools.

Some in the political elite indicate they will listen. Pinellas County
Commissioner Susan Latvala and Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judges Linda
Allan and Linda Babb have toured the facility and left impressed.

Pinellas Public Defender Robert Dillinger said he could envision
courts sending offenders there.

Government money and partnerships would subject the Clearwater
facility to closer government scrutiny than any other Narconon
facility has encountered. Alderman said her program is ready.

The Clearwater Narconon is financed by private Scientologists,
Alderman said, and enjoys only a "supportive" relationship with the
Church of Scientology, whose international spiritual headquarters are
in downtown Clearwater. Narconon's mission, she said, is to get people
off drugs. Period.

Narconon was not founded by Hubbard, Alderman stressed, but by William
Benitez, who while an inmate in an Arizona prison read books by
Hubbard and applied his principles in developing a drug treatment program.

But its ties to Scientology are undeniable.

Scientologists are major contributors, and when volunteers are needed,
Alderman simply calls the church. With one exception, every Narconon
in the country is run by a Scientologist.

Narconon also embraces Hubbard's opposition to psychiatric drugs. It
sells itself as an alternative, drug-free treatment program. It does
not use psychiatric drugs or methadone, common at most mainstream
detoxification facilities for treatment of heroin and morphine addicts.

Though many in the drug treatment community now accept Narconon,
skepticism persists. Some doubt the sauna-based detox program.

"There is no data that that kind of experience reduces the level of
toxins," said Dr. Raymond Harbison, professor of environmental and
occupational health in the College of Public Health at the University
of South Florida.

Others question the program's stance against treatment drugs and

As many as 40 percent of drug addicts need psychiatric treatment,
sometimes including drugs, said Nancy Hamilton, chief executive
officer of Tampa Bay's largest drug treatment program, Operation PAR.

And drugs such as methadone, properly applied, improve the odds of
getting heroin and opiate addicts clean, Hamilton said.

Narconon screens out such people, Alderman said, declining to take
addicts requiring psychiatric treatment or those on prescribed
psychiatric drugs. Because its niche is "functional addicts," the
Clearwater Narconon does not accept hard-core addicts in need of
methadone detoxification or an intensive inpatient program, Alderman
said. The full program costs $7,500, and insurance is not accepted,
Alderman said.

Hamilton also warned that any program tied to a religion needs to be
extremely responsible because recovering addicts are "very vulnerable
to ideology."

Despite the skepticism, Clearwater's Narconon is gaining acceptance.
Tampa's DACCO, a drug treatment program, has referred clients. So has
Pinellas-based Operation PAR, Alderman said.

The latest edition of Scientology's Freedom magazine carries a ringing
endorsement from Dr. Betty Buchan, vice president for research and
laboratory services for Operation PAR.

"The thing that impressed me the most in the Narconon program is that
it uses a natural healing approach toward substance abuse," Buchan

Buchan's comments landed her in trouble with her boss. Buchan has no
authority to endorse a program for PAR, Hamilton said. If PAR
employees referred clients to Narconon -- computer records show no
such referrals, Hamilton said -- that should cease until PAR formally
reviews Narconon.

Alderman has invited a slew of community and business leaders through
her doors seeking to allay fears and dispel misconceptions.

Last summer, visitors included Babb and Allan, both of whom later were
elected Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judges.

"It seems better organized and funded than a lot of programs we use,"
Babb said. Skepticism about the program probably is due to perceived
ties to Scientology, she said. "If it was the Southern Baptists, I
don't think it would be scrutinized as much," Babb said.

Allan said she was intrigued by the concept of not using drugs to
treat drug addicts.

"I've always found that ironic," Allan said. "That was the thing I was
most excited about."

County Commissioner Latvala said she is open to Narconon as an

"There is room in the world for anything that helps people beat this
disease," said Latvala, who toured Alderman's facility last month.

A former Pinellas School Board member, Latvala remembers school
officials rebuffing an attempt several years ago to teach a Narconon
prevention program. The feeling among many, she said, was: "It's just
Scientology. Oooo, don't do that."

Community attitudes about the church have changed, Latvala said. Hers

"The Church of Scientology is here to stay," Latvala said. "They are
doing a lot of good in the community. If they are teaching kids to say
no to drugs, what's wrong with that? If (the drug treatment program)
works, I'm all for it."

Public defender Dillinger also said Narconon could be a viable option
for the criminal justice system. He hasn't toured the facility but
said he was invited to attend a graduation at Narconon's flagship
facility in Chilocco, Okla., last year. He declined.

When Narconon opened its Chilocco facility in 1991, the Oklahoma Board
of Mental Health issued a blistering assessment in denying its
application for certification.

"There is no credible evidence establishing the effectiveness of the
Narconon program to its patients," the board concluded. It attacked
the program as medically unsafe; dismissed the sauna program as
unproven; and criticized Narconon for inappropriately taking some
patients off prescribed psychiatric medication.

That program continued operating, though, after gaining accreditation
from a private, nationally respected accrediting agency. It now is a
230-bed facility in a former casino resort near McAlestar. Through the
years "nothing bad has happened," said Ben Brown, Oklahoma's deputy
commissioner of substance abuse. "What the state recognizes is that
there's not just one way to sobriety."

Carr, Narconon's president, claims 75 percent of Narconon's graduates
stay off drugs for more than a year. About 65 percent typically
complete the program, he said.

Skeptics ask where the independent clinical studies are to back those
claims up.

Narconon has done numerous internal studies to verify its claims, but
Carr acknowledged they "are really not that solid." Narconon never has
submitted in its 37 years in the United States to independent,
clinical study necessary to silence critics, Carr said.

Operation PAR's Hamilton, a self-described research geek, said
independent performance reviews are critical. "It's a commitment you
make to try to improve," Hamilton said.

Of the 43 addicts who have come to Clearwater's Narconon, only two
relapsed, Alderman said. "You're not going to save everybody," she
said. "But if you save one life, you've made a difference."

Drug treatment became a priority for Alderman, she said, after an
immediate family member failed to get help from several treatment programs.

Her four children now grown, Alderman decided to leave the
construction business she ran with her husband and open her facility.

Other Scientologists have considered starting a Narconon program in
Florida, but none did.

"I think it takes a special person," Alderman said. "There's a lot of
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