Is Narconon Safe?
Cold turkey

Last updated
8 November 2002
Contents > Is Narconon Safe? > Cold turkey

The first stage of the Narconon programme, Drug-Free Withdrawal, involves an immediate cessation of drug taking, accompanied by a course of vitamins and dietary supplements. Narconon denies that Drug-Free Withdrawal is actually a "cold turkey" method:

Q. Do people starting the program come off drugs cold turkey?

A. No. If the person is physically addicted to drugs, after an examination is given by a competent physician, he is given the withdrawal program under 24 hour supervision. This approach is drug-free, assisted by vitamins and minerals, with assistance and counseling by a trained withdrawal specialist. The Narconon drug-free withdrawal is with minimal pain and discomfort as attested by many that have gone through the program.
[Narconon drug abuse intervention - <>]

Strictly speaking, it is not quite cold turkey; the Encarta dictionary defines it as "a method of stopping drug addiction by not taking any further drugs and not having any other treatment to protect the addict from the withdrawal symptoms". However, the "other treatment" in this case is such that the method used by Narconon is unlikely to be much better than cold turkey. Narconon attempts to alleviate withdrawal symptoms with "specific supplementary vitamins and minerals to minimize the physical problems associated with the initial halting of drug use [and] special and quite unique procedures developed by L. Ron Hubbard, called 'assists'." ["Improving Lives by Ending Drug Addiction" - <>]. This appears to be little more than junk science, as the physical effects of drug addiction are certainly not the primary result of vitamin deficiencies. Additionally, the use of "assists" - Scientology faith healing - has no scientific or medical basis whatsoever, being comparable to the "laying on hands" practices of some Christian and New Age sects. (See "Hubbard's Junk Science" for more on the use of vitamins and assists.)

Conventional treatment regimes routinely use drugs to wean addicts off other drugs. Withdrawal symptoms are often extremely painful, so painkillers are often used to help the recovering addict through the worst parts of the process. The strongest painkillers of all are opiates - heroin was originally devised for this purpose and is still used medically in some countries. Methadone, another opiate, is routinely used to reduce dependence on heroin; other painkillers, such as Valium, are also used. This approach has been clinically proven to be effective, particularly where heroin is concerned - as the Australian Drug Foundation puts it,

Many people believe that it is preferable for heroin users to stop taking drugs altogether. Although for some heroin users this is achievable, for others there is a high risk of relapse into heroin use.
["The advantages of methadone treatment", Australian Drug Foundation - <>]

There is considerable risk in abruptly quitting a substance on which the body has become dependent. Withdrawal symptoms vary between drugs, but for the opiates (such as heroin) they can be severe and physically dangerous. About eight to twelve hours after the last heroin use, an addict's eyes begin to tear and he/she starts to experience flu-like symptoms: sneezing, weakness, depression, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, increasing in severity and lasting for a week to ten days. Goose bumps and muscle spasms in the legs are also common symptoms. The physical strain of the withdrawal process can be fatal, particularly if patients have weak hearts (or have been weakened by their addiction), which is why a gradual approach to withdrawal is almost universally advocated by doctors. Many addictive drugs, including tobacco, cocaine, heroin and antidepressants, are usually tackled gradually - a treatment which many ex-smokers have used to kick the habit is the "anti-smoking patch", providing gradually smaller doses of nicotine absorbed through the skin.

Narconon rejects this approach, arguing instead for a total cut-off in all cases. A cornerstone of its theoretical basis is that all drugs are bad - not just recreational drugs but, as L. Ron Hubbard himself put it, "both medical and street drugs", ["About the Narconon Program", Narconon International - <>] on the basis that "Drugs essentially are poisons." ["There Is No Free Ride", Clark Carr, President of Narconon International - <>] Using drugs to wean an addict off another drug is therefore not allowed. Narconon has described this stage of the programme as follows:

In this first part of the program a person gets a complete physical by our Medical Director, who is on call 24 hours a day. A withdrawal program is then written up according to the individual needs of that person. The program will assist the individual to stop current drug use with minimal discomfort through proper nutrition, vitamins and care from experienced Narconon staff and a qualified nurse who is available 24 hours a day.
[Pamphlet issued by Narconon Chilocco, Oklahoma c. 1992]

This approach was strongly criticised when it was examined by the State of Oklahoma in 1991, with the comment that "the Narconon Program exposes its patients to the risk of delayed withdrawal phenomena such as seizures, delirium and/or hallucinations." ["Findings of Fact regarding the Narconon-Chilocco Application For Certification", Board of Mental Health, State of Oklahoma, 13 December 1991] In a 1974 report to the California State Department of Health on a Los Angeles branch of Narconon, the authors - a panel of doctors - recommended that "Detoxification procedures should be stopped on the premises since their procedures are without proper medical supervision and may be dangerous." ["Outline for recovery, House Evaluation" - by Forrest S. Tennant, Jr., M.D., Dr.P.H., Jane Thomas, R.N., Mike Reilly, and Joseph Shannon, M.D., M.P.H. Submitted to Don Z. Miller, Deputy Director, Health Treatment System, State Department of Health, Sacramento, CA, on 31 Oct 1974]

The same approach is taken for all drugs, despite their different natures. For non-addictive drugs such as cannabis, this poses few risks. The same cannot be said of drugs upon which the body becomes physically dependent, such as heroin or cocaine. The physical and psychological effects of an abrupt cessation of such drugs can be agonising and lethal. Sudden withdrawal from cocaine, for instance, results in acute feelings of anxiety, depression and panic which can provoke suicidal behaviour, while heroin withdrawal can cause extreme pain, diarrhoea, sweating, cramps and uncontrollable craving for the drug. In the case of heroin, these symptoms inspired the expression "going cold turkey" comes from because of the similarity in appearance between the cold and clammy skin of a dead turkey and the appearance of the skin of the drug user. This combination of physical pain and psychological torment is why so many drug addicts find it so difficult to give up, particularly as they know that one fix of the drug would instantly relieve their discomfort. Few medical authorities recommend using cold turkey withdrawal methods, as the consequences can be extremely unpleasant for the addict. In some cases, users of addictive drugs are weaned off by giving them decreasing doses of less harmful drugs, such as method in the case of heroin addicts. This approach is ruled out by Narconon's insistence that no drugs should be used to help addicts overcome withdrawal symptoms.


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