Narconon‘s school program sends students a strong anti-drug message about alcohol, tobacco and marijuana in grades three to 12 and about harder drugs in the upper grades.
The program’s instructors tell kids that drugs are poison. But here are some other things they tell kids about addiction, which the medical experts interviewed by The Chronicle rejected as not scientifically based:
— Drugs — including ecstasy, LSD and marijuana — accumulate indefinitely in body fat, where they cause recurring drug cravings for months or years.
— Drugs in fat cause flashbacks even years after the user quits.
— The vitamin niacin pulls drugs from fat, and saunas sweat them from the body.
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— Colored ooze is produced when drugs exit the body.
Tony Bylsma, director of Narconon’s education program and a Scientologist, recently asked ninth-graders at Centennial High in Compton (Los Angeles County) to imagine a boy who had smoked pot for years. “Fat stores up energy,” Bylsma told the students. “But what else is his fat storing up?”
“THC!” cried the class, naming marijuana’s active ingredient.
“Right!” Bylsma said. “THC can stay in your fat for years. Now he goes three months without smoking weed. He feels great. But is he really off drugs? Not really. He’s still a walking baggy of marijuana — enough to make him feel like getting stoned. … At our Narconon rehab centers, we devote a lot of time to cleaning this out of the body.”
Narconon’s global network of drug treatment centers gives out high doses of niacin and sends people into saunas for long intervals over several hours in the belief that this will flush drugs from the body.
“If something is locked up in your fat, the niacin releases it into your circulation,” said Clark Carr, president of Narconon International and a Scientologist. The sauna then “sweats the drugs out.”
Eliminating drug residue — “Purification” — is believed by Scientologists to protect the mind and allow one to reach an enlightened state of “clear.”
Scientologists believe the mind is made up of three-dimensional images of personal experiences called “mental image pictures.” Certain pictures of pain and loss become “scrambled” by drug residue in fat. Scrambled pictures cannot be erased, a removal that is essential for going clear.
The idea that drugs scramble mental pictures, wreak havoc in fat or can be sweated out in saunas is unique to Scientology — and Narconon. Drug experts interviewed by The Chronicle said they knew of no scientific evidence to validate such claims.
While drug residue can be found in body fat for days or weeks, there is no evidence that they cause flashbacks or cravings, said Dr. Peter Banys, director of substance abuse programs at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco. Drs. David Smith of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, Neal Benowitz of UCSF and Timmen Cermak, medical director of the Henry Ohlhoff treatment program in San Francisco agreed.
“In all my reading and attendance at conferences on chemical dependence, I have never heard any evidence for a mechanism for flashbacks,” said Cermak, who wrote “Marijuana: What’s a Parent to Believe?” in 2003. He said a likely explanation for what some people experience as a flashback is “because of the confluence of many associative clues” — much like deja vu.
The experts said research shows that marijuana and many other psychoactive drugs (including LSD, ecstasy, Valium and opiates) create the sense of being high by mimicking neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemicals. Traveling across nerves in the brain, neurotransmitters inspire thoughts, memories, emotions, hunger and other activity.
Some drugs stimulate nerves much more than neurotransmitters can. Some cause a release of extra neurotransmitters, and some block the nerve’s ability to receive the chemicals altogether, the doctors said. Thoughts, memories and emotions are affected, as is hunger, which is why marijuana causes the munchies, the doctors agreed.
Cermak said the idea that this activity occurs in fat reflects “a general lack of knowledge about the physiology of getting high.”
Carr steered medical questions to Narconon’s medical expert, Dr. David Root, who practices occupational medicine in Sacramento and runs a “Hubbard detoxification program” from his office. Root defended the drugs-in-fat view of addiction.
“These metabolic products do store in the fat and do cause problems later on. One of the reasons I feel this way is that we are literally reducing the body’s burden (through niacin and sauna). They no longer feel bad or have flashbacks,” said Root, who said he is not a Scientologist but a Presbyterian elder.
He explained that during a sauna, drugs and other poisons “come out through the skin in the form of sebaceous, or fatty, sweat. This material is frequently visible and drips or is rubbed off on towels. It may be black, brown, blue, green, yellow and occasionally red. Most is washed off in the shower … and so is not seen.”
In Hubbard’s Scientology text “Clear Body, Clear Mind,” published in 1979, one case study is about a woman exposed to toxic chemicals on the job. Her doctor was Root, who refers her to Hubbard for Purification “under his care.”
“Four days into the program, she reported ‘black junk’ coming from her pores that resembled water she used at work,” Root says on page 173. “This outpouring of this black, oily material continued throughout the program though in lesser and lesser amounts until she was done.”
Benowitz, head of clinical pharmacology at UCSF, said what Root described is “not biologically possible. Sweat glands excrete watery substances, not oil. “
Asked in an interview if there are scientific studies to support Purification, Root said, “I’m not sure I can say that.”
But Narconon officials provided a list of 61 journal articles they said supported their view, including three by Root describing his methods. Some were from such well-known publications as the Journal of the American Medical Association (“Human tissue burdens of halogenated aromatic chemicals in Michigan,” 1982). The most recent was from 1990 in Clinical Ecology (“Thermal chamber depuration: A perspective on man in the sauna”). The oldest was from 1713 on “remedies that have the power of setting the spirits and blood mass in motion and of provoking sweat.”
Carr said his own experience supports the flashback claim. “I did acid when I was at Stanford in ’67, ’68,” he said. “I did the sauna in ’79. In the sauna, I got the munchies, and I got the giggles. This was a little something that was left.”
Benowitz of UCSF called the idea of sweating out drugs and re- experiencing their effects “very amusing.”
“The concentration of drugs in sweat varies very much from drug to drug,” he said. “There’s very little THC in sweat. If a drug is water soluble, you’ll find it in higher concentrations in sweat. But not years later. That’s ridiculous. Very amusing.”
Smith of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic said such claims were “not scientifically based.”
Yet Narconon uses those ideas in drug presentations to thousands of students and teachers.
“If you have toxins in your body, you want to sweat it out,” said Reid Russell, a health teacher who has hosted Narconon about twice a year for five years at Lincoln High.
At Bravo High in Los Angeles, a public school for students interested in medicine, health teacher Jon Hyde said he and the future doctors and nurses in his class have learned a lot from Narconon.
“They have to put people in saunas for hours so they sweat. It’s the only way to get the toxins out,” Hyde said. “There was this one guy who was on several types of drugs. When he did the sauna, all this stuff just came out. The floor was all black. It’s from the drugs.”
In San Francisco schools, Narconon speaker Nathan Johnson has done lectures in schools since 1991. He often performs a demonstration in which he drops some tea leaves into corn oil, where they remain suspended. He drops other tea leaves into water, where they float to the surface.
Like tea leaves, “most drugs are fat-soluble,” said Johnson, a Scientologist. “That was one of the things Hubbard’s research showed. THC stays indefinitely in the fat.”
Johnson’s demonstration does show that tea leaves react differently to oil than to water. But it does not show how long tea, marijuana or THC stays in body fat.
Teachers may love Narconon, but in Los Angeles, some school district officials do not.
“Think about it: A kid will say, ‘Wow, I’ll go to a sauna and exercise, and no one will know if I’ve been using or not,’ ” said Lee Saltz, a drug counselor in the district.
Saltz said teachers invite Narconon into classrooms despite a recommendation by the district that the program not be used.
One Los Angeles teacher who was skeptical about the information found that banning Narconon was easier said than done.
“Although it was a great presentation, I decided not to have (Bylsma) back,” said Peter Senick of Manual Arts High. “I didn’t know if it was scientifically based.”
But Narconon lobbied, sending student testimonials — including one from a kid who said he decided against taking drugs after hearing the presentation in Senick’s class.
“If this is the effect they had on one kid,” Senick told himself, “then who am I to be so uppity that one little fact is not right?”
He invited Bylsma back.