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Narconon is dead, long live Narconon! How Scientology solved its drug rehab addiction


[The woman Scientology won’t name]

You have to give Scientology leader David Miscavige one thing: Once he makes a decision, it can get carried out very quickly. And after this weekend’s opening of a large new Narconon center in Clearwater, Florida, it’s plain that a major project Miscavige set into motion a couple of years ago is now pretty much complete.

Narconon, as we know it, is over.

And in its place is Narconon, version 2.0.

Let’s spin back a bit to get some perspective on how we find ourselves where we are. Narconon likes to say that in 1966 a former Arizona prison inmate named Bill Benitez read a book by L. Ron Hubbard and came up with the idea for Narconon (a name that combines “narcotics” and “no” or “none”). And while that’s true, all that really matters is that Hubbard, seeing an opportunity, took over Narconon and made it a part of his plans for his spy wing, the Guardian’s Office, to operate numerous front groups that would spread Scientology under the cover of “social coordination.” When Narconon was originally incorporated in 1970, one of its three officers was one of Scientology’s top Guardian’s Office spies, Henning Heldt, who later went to prison for his role in Scientology’s massive 1970s infiltration of the federal government in the “Snow White Program.”

Guardian’s Office documents, gathered during a 1977 FBI raid, make it quite clear that Hubbard saw Narconon as a stealthy way to introduce his ideas to very vulnerable people — drug addicts — and Narconon would be a “bridge to the bridge,” bringing new people into Scientology and its “Bridge to Total Freedom.” But Narconon was also valuable because it allowed Scientology to say that it was helping to better society by cleaning up addicts. In more recent years, all of Scientology’s most famous celebrities have endorsed Narconon, and you would regularly hear someone like John Travolta or Tom Cruise say that Scientology was “the authority on getting people off drugs.” To cement that notion, Scientology opened its biggest facility ever — its “flagship” rehab center — in Oklahoma, far from any of Scientology’s usual haunts in California and Florida. Meanwhile, at its annual events, Scientology boasted to its members that Narconon was growing rapidly around the globe as a hugely successful church initiative.

But to prospective patients, Narconon didn’t advertise its connection to Scientology. In fact, Scientology wasn’t mentioned at all in the contract that new “students” signed, and Narconon was careful to say that it was a “secular” program, and not a faith-based one.

And that’s where the trouble started. What was once a reliable money-making worldwide network of drug rehab centers ran into serious problems in the last half dozen years. There was the 2008 death of a patient in Georgia that resulted in a troublesome lawsuit and later a law enforcement raid of the facility, which was eventually closed. Then, in 2011 and 2012, an even bigger nightmare — three deaths in nine months at the flagship itself, Narconon Arrowhead in Oklahoma. Like in Georgia, law enforcement investigations eventually petered out, but a new crop of lawsuits and the bad press that came with them resulted in a major loss of business at the big facility.

And then, there was Ryan Hamilton. Other lawyers have sued the Narconon network, but Hamilton, a Las Vegas attorney, made it a cottage industry. He realized that Narconon was vulnerable not only because so many former patients claimed to have been harmed, but because Narconon’s business model, and its contracts, were steeped in deception.

Maybe that’s not too surprising for a business that was originally formed as part of a spy operation, but Narconon’s essential scheme was stunningly brazen, once Hamilton laid it bare: Narconon claimed to be a secular organization, keeping quiet about its connection to Scientology, and it promised, for about $30,000, to deliver individualized drug counseling in a safe environment staffed with medical personnel.

The reality could not have been more different. The Narconon program delivers no drug counseling at all, but is in fact just a repackaging, in nine booklets, of the exact same procedures that a beginning Scientologist goes through in a Scientology church. And while “students” at a Narconon are engaging in staring contests and yelling at ashtrays and baking for dangerously long periods in a sauna like good Scientologists, they are in a facility with zero medical personnel, staffed instead by program graduates. Recent lawsuits claim that the environment is rife with drug use and offers of drugs for sex. In other words, a Narconon is maybe the worst place for a family to send a young addict if they truly want a “secular” rehab center and extensive counseling.

As Hamilton honed the language in his lawsuits, attorneys in other parts of the country picked up their own cases as it became obvious that there was blood in the water. Narconons everywhere used the same contracts, and made the same promises, and produced plenty of unhappy former customers who could never get their money back. And there was no sign that Scientology was making any moves to change those contracts or reform the existing Narconon network, even as its flagship center in Oklahoma declined until it was running on fumes. And worse: That claim of being secular now came back to haunt Narconon, as it couldn’t run to court and claim special protection under the religious rights guaranteed in the First Amendment, as Scientology does every time it finds itself being sued.

Narconon appeared to be in serious trouble. Increasingly, we were getting reports that the companies that insured Narconon centers were freaking out, wanting to settle lawsuits that Scientology, characteristically, wanted to fight with its usual scorched-earth tactics. As Hamilton’s lawsuits began overcoming Scientology’s motions to dismiss with almost no defeats, things began to look dire. Narconon’s insurers were going to be cutting some large checks, and with no end in sight. But then, in January last year, Miscavige responded to the crisis by announcing that he was going to be opening up a whole new set of Narconons around the world.

Say what? Was the Scientology leader simply ignoring the cancer eating away at Narconon by doubling down?

Well, no. Former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder was one of the first to recognize what was really going on. Miscavige was actually bailing on Narconon, and was replacing it with something new.

“I said it a year ago. He’s going to have to abandon Narconon as he knows it. The only thing he didn’t change was the name,” Rinder told us yesterday.

That’s echoed by a former Narconon official, who asked not to be named. “It’s a totally different era than when it was run by Narconon International and what those centers used to be like,” the former official told us. “Narconon International is now dead. Everything is being run by ABLE, and it’s a Sea Org operation.”

Let’s unpack that statement. Under the old model, individual Narconon centers, non-profit companies organized locally, were “licensed” under regional umbrella groups which were themselves all licensed by Narconon International, whose president was a longtime Scientologist named Clark Carr. Narconon International, in turn, was licensed by the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE), a Scientology entity staffed by Sea Org members which also oversees Scientology’s other stealthy front groups that try to introduce L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology to schools, prisons, and at big public events. We’ve written previously that one sign of how ABLE is tightly controlled by Scientology leader David Miscavige is that he had its president, Rena Weinberg, disappeared to “The Hole,” a bizarre Scientology prison.

And then, at the end of January 2015, a year after Miscavige announced his plans for new Narconons, Carr himself vanished as the Los Angeles offices of Narconon International were suddenly cleaned out. Carr later turned up at a Narconon in Tijuana as his demotion became clear. But what happened to Narconon International itself?

Our former official tells us that it’s simply been erased, and the new Narconon facilities are reporting directly to ABLE and its Executive Director, a blonde woman who has showed up at the grand openings of all the new facilities in recent months, but who is never named in press releases put out by Scientology. She’s pictured above, and we wager that one of our expert commenters will recognize her and supply us with her name. (Sure enough: She’s gone by both Shannon Walker and Shannon Wilson.) But we find it bizarre that Scientology, in its stories about the openings, only refers to her by her title.

In Ojai in September…

Guests arrived for a private reception followed by a grand opening ceremony officiated by the Executive Director of the Association for Better Living and Education International (ABLE). Welcoming the guests, she told them, “Today, Narconon is a global leader in drug and alcohol rehabilitation…”

In Denmark, also in September…

In addressing those gathered for the grand opening celebration, the Executive Director of the Association for Better Living and Education International, ABLE, noted that “ABLE is dedicated to improving society….”

And this weekend in Clearwater…

Officiating at the Narconon Suncoast grand opening ceremony was the Executive Director of the Association for Better Living and Education International (ABLE), who welcomed the guests…

Strange, isn’t it? (New “Ideal” Narconons were also opened recently in Mexico and the UK. But plans in Australia, Canada, and Maryland have been stalled as locals have successfully resisted zoning changes.)

Meanwhile, the changes to the existing network — or what’s left of it — are profound, the former official tells us.

“ABLE is directly managing Narconon centers now and Narconon International is toast. Along with this new ‘Ideal Narconon’ era has come more control, of course. Facilities are having to start making both staff and students wear cheesy Narconon uniforms, and they have released new program materials, and Gold [the Golden Era Productions studios at the International Base near Hemet, California] has produced new Narconon videos and PSA’s,” the former official says. “This has been met with some backlash from within the network. First of all, more than a year ago, Narconon Gulf Coast in Destin, Florida officially left the Narconon network and became ‘Blu by the Sea.’ They do not use any Scientology or Narconon, and none of their staff are Scientologists either. They are completely out.”

Narconon Suncoast, the facility that opened in Clearwater this weekend, has also been through big changes, he says. It replaces another facility that was in nearby Hernando County and had been the subject of a lawsuit over its expansion. The county was forced to pay $1.97 million in that lawsuit, but the facility then shut down and moved to Clearwater, and changed hands. It’s now run by the team that operates a Narconon in Louisiana, our source says. And despite the windfall of cash from the Hernando County lawsuit, the press release for the new center indicates that it was built with money from Scientology’s own International Association of Scientologists (IAS).

“They’re no longer hiding the direct connection to Scientology,” the former official says. “During the takeover, most of the Suncoast staff left because they were told they had to be on board with the ‘on Source’ ABLE program or get the fuck out. But that’s not even the biggest news.”

The real bombshell? Quietly, he says, Narconon’s entire Northern California operation appears to have ditched Scientology’s program.

“They recently closed one of their three centers, in Placerville, because they were not getting enough business and were starting to lose money. They had also tried to re-brand from ‘Narconon Vista Bay’ to ‘Emerald Pines,’ ‘Pinecone Grove’ and ‘Redwood Cliffs.’ This clearly didn’t work, as they still had the Narconon name. Now word has emerged from multiple sources that they have left the Narconon network altogether to do something different. Their Narconon-branded websites are down in maintenance mode, and their new site is”

The new website specifically mentions ‘SMART Recovery,’ a science-based approach founded in Ohio that has nothing to do with Narconon. But our source says the change may not be wholesale.

“Given the number of Scientologists still on staff, I’d be skeptical that they are all they way out. It could be some hybrid like Per Wickstrom’s Michigan operations,” the former official says. “Anyway, there are a lot of shake-ups going on, and I’m sure more to come.”

We told Mike Rinder about the changes happening to the system, and we noted something else about the new facilities coming on-line or being planned — some of them are tiny. In Maryland, locals are still fighting a new Narconon center at a former fish camp called Trout Run, but what surprised us was that Scientology has already paid $5 million just for the parcel of what will eventually be a center housing only 20 patients (if Scientology can win a legal challenge).

And the new Narconon in Ojai, built in the old Larry Hagman estate, will cater to VIPs with only a handful of beds.

“If that place is only going to have about six beds, then this is just to cater to the elite friends of the celebrities, and to try and get ‘opinion leaders’ to do this program instead of trying to save the world from the scourge of drugs, which they promoted for a long time as the purpose of Narconon,” Rinder says.

The former official makes the same prediction. “The last few centers that are going to be left are going to be part of this Sea Org-style Narconon operation. They’ll be very empty, it will no longer be a money-making venture, and it’s all just a PR exercise,” he says.

Ironically, Rinder says, the new, more obvious tie between Narconon and Scientology was always something he argued for when he helped oversee Scientology’s legal affairs.

“I had always maintained that it was the best defense. And anyway, it’s true: Narconon is a Scientology-based program and everyone knows it. But they pretended it wasn’t so they could get government funding. It’s in the L. Ron Hubbard advices. He wanted the Narconon centers to be government-funded. And you can’t get that if they’re faith-based.”

Rinder predicts that Narconon will not only become a boutique operation more about public relations than making money, but that it may soon begin claiming to be a “faith-based” operation to protect itself from new lawsuits. The former official agrees.

“I think they have to eventually. Now that they’re announcing the connection to the IAS, and you have to call in your stats every week to a Sea Org member, how can you claim that you’re secular?”



We didn’t get a chance to include photos in our book, so we’ve posted them at a dedicated page. Reader Sookie put together a complete index and we’re hosting it here on the website. Copies of the paperback version of ‘The Unbreakable Miss Lovely’ are on sale at Amazon. The Kindle edition is also available, and shipping instantly.

Our book tour is concluded for now. (But you can re-experience it through this nifty interactive map!) We’ll let you know about future appearances. Previous events: Santa Barbara (5/16), Hollywood (5/17), Orange County (5/17), San Diego (5/20), San Francisco (5/22), New York (6/11), Chicago (6/20), Toronto (6/22), Clearwater (6/28), Washington DC (7/12), Hartford (7/14), Denver (7/17), Dallas (7/20), Houston (7/22), San Antonio (7/24), Austin (7/25), Paris (7/29), London (8/4), Boston (8/24), Phoenix (9/15), Cleveland (9/23), Minneapolis (9/24), Portland (9/27), Seattle (9/28), Vancouver BC (9/29), Sydney (10/23), Melbourne (10/25), Adelaide (10/28), Perth (10/30)


Posted by Tony Ortega on November 10, 2015 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA attorney and former church member Vance Woodward

UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield


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