What We Know About Narconon, The Scientology Rehab Kirstie Alley Spoke So Highly Of

In the late 1970's Kirstie Alley came to the realization her cocaine addiction was spiraling out of control. She decided to read Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. "I completed the book and decided it was either the biggest scam in the universe or it would lead me out of my self-created hell," Alley wrote in her 2005 memoir, How to Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Life: Confessions of a Big-Butted Star. She soon joined Scientology and completed the organization's Narconon program. By 1990, she placed the importance of the program in the context of the ongoing U.S.-led so-called "War on Drugs." 

"It's all well and good to become a soldier in the war on drugs, but you better have some heavy ammunition or you'll get yourself shot down," she said [via the Narconon website]. "Narconon is the artillery needed to fight this battle and win."

In 1996, when Narconon was celebrating its 30-year anniversary at a gala in Beverly Hills, Alley hosted the star-studded event with Tom Cruise, Danny DeVito, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and John Travolta among those in attendance. Alley opened the evening with a question, "How much is a life worth?" she asked, according to the Church of Scientology's magazine, Freedom. She answered: "It is worth saving. And that is what Narconon is all about, and has been about for three decades. In fact, it is because of the rehabilitation methods used by Narconon that I am alive to talk to you today." 

What is Narconon?

Unlike most drug rehabilitation centers, Scientology's Narconon facilities have few — if any — properly trained medical personnel. Instead, the facilities are staffed by those who, in the eyes of Narconon, have successfully completed the program. Those seeking treatment are not patients, they are "students." Why students? 

"Narconon believes a person can make the right decision about drugs only if he or she has the true information," said John Duff, former president of Narconon International [via the Narconon website]. "Because of this, Narconon has campaigned vigorously for drug education since 1979." That results in students reading 8 books by L. Ron Hubbard, according to NBC News

Instead of relying on medication as part of helping with withdrawal, Narconon says it offers "drug-free withdrawal," per its website. According to NBC News, that amounts to massive amounts of Niacin — and a dose of vegetable oil, per the Oklahoman. Narconon says [via the Narconon website] that, "New Life Detoxification is based on L. Ron Hubbard's breakthrough discovery that LSD residues appeared to remain trapped in the body, mainly in the fatty tissues, long after a person had stopped taking the drug." 

The only way to truly get rid of residual drugs in the system, according to Narconon, is vigorous exercise, nutritional supplements, hydration, and lengthy dry-heat sauna sessions. Per the site, "[Former students will] tell you they sweated out the drugs locked up in their system and gained a new energy, a new vitality — a new life, free from drug cravings."

Suicide in a Narconon facility

For as much as Kirstie Alley championed Narconon for her sobriety, not everyone had the same experience. In 2019, a family was awarded $11 million by a jury in California for the death of John Cunningham, who had sought treatment for a prescription drug addiction at a facility that they later learned was a Narconon center, according to the Daily Beast. The family said they paid $37,500 for what they said was completely inadequate care from people who had no medical training whatsoever on top of complete negligence that directly led to Cunningham dying by suicide while in their custody. The family's lawyer said in a press release that the facility never assessed the risk of suicide and kept his anti-depression medication from him.

According to filings, the center's website obscured the fact that it was a Narconon center, which the victim's family said they would have never allowed him knowingly to enter. "[The Narconon facility] waits until a person pays them thousands of dollars and is committed to becoming a student of NRC, before NRC subtly discloses L. Ron Hubbard," lawyers wrote in court filings [via the Daily Beast]. "The public (and Cunninghams) are misled to believe that RC is just another conventional detox program when in reality it is a program based on a very controversial cult leader." For its part, Narconon immediately cut ties with the facility, saying the organization was no longer part of the Narconon network, per the Daily Beast.

Narconon students felt they were misled

In 2015, a class action lawsuit was filed against Narconon of Northern California, claiming that the program was far removed from providing drug rehabilitation and little more than a gateway to joining the Church of Scientology. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Nathan Burgoon, one plaintiff in the lawsuit said he paid $37,5000 to combat his addiction at the facility and instead spent 20 days learning about Scientology and as much as 8 hours a day in a hot sauna with little water available to him. 

"Had Mr. Burgoon been informed that the 'treatment' at Narconon of Northern California consisted of the study of Scientology and participation in Scientology rituals, he would not have enrolled in a Narconon program," Burgoon's attorney wrote in court filings [via the Santa Cruz Sentinel].

A similar lawsuit was filed against Narconon and its flagship facility, Narconon Arrowhead, in Canadian, Oklahoma. The plaintiff said she paid $32,500 to send her son to the facility for addiction treatment and was forced to remove him after three weeks out of fear for his health because the facility had no medical personnel, the McAlester News-Capital reported at the time. 

"The conduct of the defendants was in reckless disregard for the rights of the plaintiff. The defendants were aware, or did not care, that there was a substantial or unnecessary risk that their conduct would cause serious injuries to others," court filings said, (via the AP).