L. Ron Hubbard, the prolific science fiction author and founder of the Church of Scientology, may have been judged “a mental case” (according to the F.B.I.) and “a pathological liar” (according to a Los Angeles Supreme Court judge), but to tens of thousands of his eager followers worldwide, the man discovered an approach to recovery that outclasses everything on offer from mainstream addiction science. Narconon is the spawn of Hubbard’s pseudoscientific notions, a detox-and-rehab enterprise that has, over more than four decades, grown into a multimillion-dollar empire that currently comprises an estimated several dozen clinics encircling the globe. Its claims of unrivaled success rates with its “100 percent natural,” “drug free” approach have kept it profitable and respectable, even as the church’s reputation has tanked. Celebrity endorsements—from the likes of “former graduate” Kirstie Alley—and a savvy internet marketing campaign haven’t hurt.
Yet according to the organization’s many critics, including friends and family of dead, damaged, or disappeared Narconon clients, the chain of rehabs is little more than a front group for the Church of Scientology. They allege that unsuspecting clients pay as much as $30,000 for “treatment” consisting of a bizarre detox process that poses serious health hazards, followed by indoctrination in Scientology masked as drug rehabilitation. By preying on people who are desperate and vulnerable—and therefore prime candidates for conversion—Narconon serves as one of the church’s main sources of revenue and recruitment. With the Scientology brand increasingly toxic—in a recent New Yorker, Lawrence Wright reported that the F.B.I. is investigating its leadership for allegedly violating human trafficking laws—the church’s survival depends more than ever on Narconon’s hold on the addiction and recovery market.