Detox center seeks wider acceptance
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
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 psychiatry.
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 states.
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 alternative.
"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 has.
"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.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks