New Drug Program Has Its Critics

Source: San Diego Union
Date: November 2, 1986

A new drug treatment program that promises to rid people of drug dependency and to enable users "to take control again" of their lives is about to begin operation in San Diego.

The program, called Narconon, already is offering speakers for community groups and schools and plans to open a treatment center soon at a Pacific Beach health club.

Narconon uses a two- or three-week treatment regimen that revolves around exercise and nutrition - with large doses of vitamins and minerals, lengthy saunas, exercise, lots of sleep and a special diet that includes quantities of food oil. The cost is $2,000.

Local experts asked to evaluate Narconon's program said that at best it uses unproven theories of doubtful value. At worst, these experts said, the program is potentially dangerous.

"I think it's basically charlatanism," said Bob MacFarlane, an addiction specialist at Sharp Cabrillo Hospital.

Others claim that Narconon is really a front and recruitment arm for the controversial Church of Scientology, where the techniques were developed.

"We think it's a scam," said Reginald Alev, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network.

Narconon is being organized in San Diego by Stan Gerson, one of three partners in Industrial Property Co., a real estate firm, and Linda Aldrete, a La Jolla real estate agent. Both will serve as unpaid Narconon directors, they said, as a service to the community.

"I owe the community - you have to put back," said Gerson, who with two brothers founded The Bedroom waterbed company in 1969.

Aldrete and Gerson spoke to a group last week at the University of San Diego and have other speeches set up. They are involved in organizing a Narconon speaker's bureau of eight persons who will give drug lectures throughout the county, said Aldrete, who is president of the Women's Association of the Mexican American Foundation in San Diego.

A Narconon treatment center was scheduled to begin operation this week at F.D.'s All-American Fitness Center on Cass Street in Pacific Beach, but Aldrete said the opening would be delayed for a month or two to give them time to organize the speaker's bureau.

The San Diego center will start out as an arm of a Narconon center in Los Angeles. Initially, the center here will offer no drug counseling for more serious users, but those services are available at the Los Angeles Narconon, Gerson said.

Narconon has no ties to the Narcotics Anonymous drug programs or to Nar-Anon, for the families of drug users.

Everyone taking the Narconon cure, known as the Purification Program, is required to obtain written approval from a doctor and to stop taking drugs. According to Narconon literature, the Purification Program starts off with running and saunas. Eventually, a patient "works up" to as much as five hours a day in the sauna, with liquids, salt and potassium administered to replace materials lost in sweating.

Gradually increasing doses of vitamins and minerals also are administered. For example, patients begin by taking about 100 milligrams of niacin, a B-complex vitamin, each day, and end up taking 2,000 to 5,000 milligrams daily in most cases, and as much as 6,800 milligrams, according to the literature. Proportional increases in other vitamins and minerals also are given.

A Narconon patient also drinks two to eight tablespoons of a blend of soy, walnut, peanut and safflower oil every day during treatment.

"For those who have had drugs of any kind, there is NO OTHER RESCUE that is effective," a Narconon booklet says.

Narconon claims that drug residues, including "LSD crystals," become lodged in a person's fat tissues and remain there for many years after drugs are taken, causing various mental and physical problems.

The minerals and vitamins administered in the program, especially niacin, dislodge these drug residues, which are sweated out by the sauna and exercise, according to Narconon. The food oil is taken to allow the body to replace bad "drug-laden fat" with "good" fat.

"It may even be possible that the effects of Agent Orange (the defoliant used in the Vietnam War) can be relieved on the Purification Program," a Narconon booklet says.

At the end of treatment, according to Narconon, dependency on drugs will be eliminated and symptoms of drug use, such as headaches, will have disappeared.

But medical specialists contacted in San Diego were critical of Narconon's methods.

"There is no scientific basis for what they are saying," said Paul Saltman, a professor of biochemistry at UC San Diego.

For example, Saltman said, there is no evidence that drinking food oil will allow the body to replace "bad" fat with "good" fat. In fact, he said, drinking oil during the treatment will cause blood levels of fat to remain high, preventing the body's store of fat from being used up.

Seth Asser, a doctor of immunology and pediology at the UCSD Medical Center, said there is evidence that small traces of certain drugs can be measured in body fat for months or even years after they were ingested. "But these are not chemically significant amounts," he said, and they diminish naturally as body fat is replaced.

Saltman and Asser said the study Narconon uses to support its claims relies entirely on subjective reports from patients, with no objective test measurements for the toxins that it claims are being excreted.

Saltman and Asser also criticized the report because it ignores a well-known scientific phenomenon known as the placebo effect: People who spend a lot of money and time for a treatment program will almost always report feeling better, no matter what it is.

However, they said, encouraging drug users, as Narconon's program does, to stop using drugs and to exercise, eat a balanced diet and get a good night's sleep for three weeks likely would have a beneficial effect.

"I would say there is nothing in this program that would make it worth anywhere near $2,000," Asser said. "Joining the local health club and sitting in the sauna will cost a tenth as much, and probably will be just as effective."

Spending four or five hours a day in a sauna "is potentially very dangerous" for some people, as is taking large doses of vitamins, Asser said.

"My concern is for a broader harm: People who have a serious (drug) problem may be diverted from serious therapy," Asser added.

But Narconon claims that more than 200,000 people have benefitted from the program, which currently is conducted in 33 centers in 12 countries.

Sixty-nine-year-old Ruth Knudsen - a Scientology member for 32 years and the person who will administer Narconon's program in San Diego - said she has heard the criticisms before.

"I am sorry they don't believe it," Knudsen said. "I have seen it work with my own eyes."

Finally, there is Narconon's relationship to the Church of Scientology, which has been embroiled in lawsuits and allegations of cult practices for more than 20 years.

Aldrete and Gerson, the two San Diego Narconon directors, are both Scientologists. But they insist that Narconon has no connection to the church. "No ties whatsoever," Aldrete said.

However, a book called Scientology and published by the church, says: "The Church has sponsored and fully supported an extremely successful drug program called Narconon."

Alev of the Cult Awareness Network said that while Narconon and Scientology may be separate corporations, his group has gathered evidence that portrays the drug program as a recruitment arm of the church.

"In our view," Alev said, "the objective is to substitute one addiction, drugs, for another, membership in the Church of Scientology."

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