One common response to criticism of the Church of Scientology is to point to its social action projects (less charitably referred to as front groups.) Crime rehabilitation, emergency relief, drug treatment – whatever problems the Church may have internally, they are going out and helping people. Right?

One of the most widely known Scientologist initiatives is Narconon, a drug treatment organisation based around the teachings of Hubbard. Hubbard’s analysis of drugs, similar in some respects to his concept of the reactive mind (in which negative experiences are stored as “engrams” which can later be triggered and cause problems), holds that drugs remain stored in the body long after use, lurking in fatty tissue for years to come. These drugs can be cleansed by going through Narconon’s detoxification process, which involves large amounts of vitamins and minerals combined with lengthy sessions in saunas. In addition to this detox, Narconon “students” work through materials produced by L Ron Hubbard.

Narconon’s methods have come under criticism for a number of reasons. The Purification Rundown – the drug-cleansing process which both forms the core of Narconon and is required for advancement through Scientology – requires the user to make use of levels of the vitamin Niacin far above the levels medically recommended. Similarly, the Rundown requires participants to make use of saunas for hours at a time at temperatures of up to 80 degrees, putting users at risk of dehydration and salt depletion. This sauna use is combined with exercise with the aim of helping the user sweat out the drugs stored in their system while cleansing their body through the vitamins courses.

These claims are regarded as medically unsound, with the vast majority of drugs being processed by internal organs rather than excreted through sweat.

Narconon has also come under criticism over the way in which the organisation is run. In particular, the group’s ties to the Church of Scientology are often deliberately downplayed due to the Church’s controversial reputation. This was a large factor leading to Narconon drugs education materials being used in schools in the UK – when the Times contacted several such schools in 2007, those who responded stated they were unaware of the course’s ties to the Church. Narconon centres in the US have been repeatedly criticised for practicing medicine without a license and failing to meet the needs of their “students.” Further, Narconon’s claimed success rate of 70% is largely dismissed, with one study claiming as low as 6.6%. Figures are notoriously difficult to obtain, in part due to Narconon’s definition of “success.”

While Narconon’s benefit to individuals with drug problems is debateable at best, its benefits to the Church of Scientology are obvious:

1. PR. Church materials prominently feature Scientology’s supposed social betterment activities, such as Narconon, Criminon and the Volunteer Minister teams. Doing so allows the cult to present itself positively, giving them another stick to beat critics with.

2. Cover. Scientology itself has a bad reputation at present, and this reputation is gradually making its way into the mainstream. Working through front groups such as Narconon allows them to get into situations the Church of Scientology itself could not – as evidenced by their success in getting Narconon materials into British schools.

3. Recruitment. Narconon courses include the Way to Happiness (based around the Hubbard pamphlet of the same name) and the Purification Rundown. Hubbard’s teachings form the core around which Narconon is based. Narconon enables the Church of Scientology to prey on vulnerable people and induct them into the cult.

Narconon is dangerous in and of itself, as well as in its ties to the cult of Scientology. Unlike a religious-run soup kitchen, which does some obvious good (feeding people) as well as promoting its beliefs, the very “help” Narconon claims to offer puts people at risk, spreading false information and promoting health-threatening treatments. Any attempts to force it into schools and prisons must be rejected.

Further reading:
* Official website
* Narconon at Wikipedia
* Stop Narconon
* Narconon Exposed
* Critique of the medical claims of Narconon
* Freedom of Information documents on Narconon/Criminon (PDF, 3MB)
* Revealed: how Scientologists infiltrated Britain’s schools (The Times)

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