By Mike Deeson
CLEARWATER, Florida (WTSP) - Whether it is cocaine, pills, or heroin, drug addiction is a major problem affecting every community in the country.
One of the biggest worldwide treatment clinics, Narconon, has its east coast headquarters in Clearwater. However, USF Psychiatrist Dr. Ryan Estevez says he believes the program is plain and simple quackery.
In addition to the east coast headquarters, Narconon has a new Suncoast Rehabilitation Center in Spring Hill.
While most rehab programs say a 20 percent success rate is fantastic, Narconon claims an amazing 76 percent success rate on its website.
Keith Werninck says the success rate that Narconon claims drew him in. He spent $28,000 to send his daughter, Kaysie, to a Narconon facility in Southern Oklahoma. While she was at facility, Kaysie Werninck became violently ill.
"They definitely did not take care of my daughter. Subsequently, my daughter died," said Werninck.
After a legal battle, the Werninck family settled with Narconon and built a social hall for their church to honor their daughter's memory with the money they received.
When we asked Keith Werninck if he holds Narconon responsible, he told us, "Oh, definitely. Oh, definitely."
"It's an accident waiting to happen," said Dr. Estevez.
He believes the techniques Narconon uses to cure drug addiction don't work. The techniques reportedly include: five hours a day in the sauna; mega doses of vitamins; and, according to some former patients, staring at objects like an ashtray trying to get them to move.
"And from a physician perspective, they are also doing something that could be very dangerous," said Dr. Estevez.
In addition to Kaysie Werninck, several other people have died while participating in the program, including Patrick Desmond of Brevard County. Desmond was under court order to go to a 24-hour residential rehab. He was allowed to go the Narconon Georgia facility after court administrator Lisa Mooty spoke with officials there.
In a video deposition for the Desmond case, Mooty says she was deceived and was mislead by representatives of Narconon. It turns out Narconon was only licensed as an outpatient clinic, and Patrick Desmond died as the result of a heroin overdose while riding in a car away from the facility.
University of Tampa Professor Dr. David Krahl specializes in dealing with substance abuse and says Narconon has catastrophe written all over it. He is appalled the program doesn't believe in the accepted practice of using medication, psychiatric counseling, or requiring licensed therapists to treat patients. He says people have ended up in the hospital when the detoxification was not managed correctly.
And then there is the connection with the Church of Scientology. While Narconon maintains its own facilities and offices, critics say it never tells patients up front that the whole program is associated with the Church of Scientology.
"It's not accurate to say it is Scientology-based, because Scientology is a religion. We're not a religion," said Narconon CEO Gary Smith.
Smith does admit the program is based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and the organization does receive funding from the church.
"Anybody can see if you look into it, the philosophy that is brought into the rehabilitation program is the same philosophy that is brought into their religion of Scientology," said Dr. Estevez.
Narconon issued a statement, saying its drug rehab staff "continually reviews and drills administrative protocols to best respond to new situations."
Narconon's full statement can be found at the bottom of the page.
Another complaint about the program is that patients start treating other patients overnight.
"I literally went to bed a patient and woke up a counselor," said former patient David Lee.
Lee says patients who became drug counselors were indoctrinated into Scientology, and many patients who left the organization ended up joining the church.
"I went there and I didn't know anything about Scientology until after I arrived. It was all over, the books and everything. Everything we were taught was L. Ron Hubbard technology, teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, and Scientology principles," said Lee.
And several parents of patients who have died in the facility, like Keith Werninck, say they didn't know of the Scientology connection, and would have never sent their loved ones to Narconon if they knew.
"I think they ought to be shut down, if you ask me. I think it would be a good thing, because somebody else won't die there," said Werninck.
Here is the full statement from Narconon:
"The Narconon drug rehabilitation program is a life skills model, founded in 1996 by heroin addict William Benitez in Arizona State Prison, based on his reading works by L. Ron Hubbard, humanitarian also known for Dianetics and Scientology. From its humble beginnings, the network of charitable or non-profit Narconon groups has expanded to comprise 40 countries on 6 continents. Since 1995, more than 34,000 thousand students have graduated the three to four month Narconon program. Every life saved is precious and hard won, requiring dedication from both Narconon staff and each addict desiring to get his life back under control.
"Recently, Narconon has been flanking law enforcement efforts to combat the escalating prescription drug abuse epidemic. Prescription drug addicts are a singularly difficult group to help. In 2008, the CDC reported that over 100 people a day were dying of prescription drug overdose, triple the number in 1990*. In 2010, 7 people a day in Florida died from prescription drug overdose. While this number is down 6.3%, per WTSP reports, heroin deaths are now rising. Dangerous synthetic drugs such as bath salts, K-2, and ever stronger RX drugs present constant new challenges to the drug rehabilitation field and the people working in it. Just as first responders to crisis situations, Narconon drug rehab staff continually review and drill administrative protocols to best respond to new situations as addiction severity increases with these new drug trends."
*Source: Centers for Disease