Does Narconon work?

Last updated
2 January 2003
Contents > Does Narconon work? > Studies
  • Studies


The way that Narconon presents its claimed success rates is, on the whole, very peculiar. As well as not making available source data from studies, it often claims that its success rates are universally applicable - that is, that a particular success figure is obtained everywhere. In a great many cases, figures are quoted without any reference to their sources; basic information such as where they come from, when they were determined and how many people were evaluated are often wholly absent. Even when some kind of citation is included, it is often extremely vague - for instance, "a study conducted by an independent organisation" (who, where, when, how?). Detailed citations are vanishingly rare in Narconon's literature.

Narconon's publicity material presents a number of different figures for its claimed success rates, for instance:

In many cases, the sources of these figures are not given. When they are, however, the most commonly cited sources are studies carried out in Sweden and Spain during the 1980s and in Oklahoma during the 1990s and 2000s.

The Swedish Study

Narconon has made much over the years of a study of its graduates carried out in Sweden in 1981 that, depending on where you obtain the information from, showed that variously 78%, 78.6%, 84.6% or 85% of those that completed the Narconon programme were still drug free a year later. On Narconon's websites, there are only three mentions of the study's author, no details are available of how the study was conducted, the detailed figures are not reproduced and the organisation does not appear to have made the study report available anywhere - it also does not appear to respond to requests for it, as many people (including the present author) have requested copies over the years but have never been able to obtain them from Narconon. Typically, Narconon will omit to mention how many actually completed the programme. For instance, Narconon International's website states:

In 1981, Peter Gerdman, an independent researcher, examined the long-term effects of the Narconon program for 61 drug abusers who graduated from Narconon Huddinge, a facility outside Stockholm. He followed the graduates for four years after they completed the program.

Although 69 percent had been using drugs for 6 to 10 years prior to coming to the Narconon program, and nearly all were addicted to a multitude of different drugs, four years later 78.6 percent were drug free.
["Summary of Evaluations of the Narconon® Program over the Last 30 Years" - <>]

In other words, 78.6% of the 61 drug abusers had become drug-free. Simple arithmetic shows that this cannot possibly be correct - 78.6% of 61 is 47.946 people - and a closer examination of the study reveals the true facts, which are very different to how Narconon presents them.

One Swede, Catarina Pamnell, did manage to trace the report. It had been sent to the municipality of Huddinge in 1983 as part of an evaluation on whether Narconon should be fully accepted as a treatment facility, and is publicly available under Sweden's "Offentlighetsprincipen" (freedom of information laws). Peter Gerdman, a Stockholm social worker, conducted the study in May 1981. On his behalf, Narconon staff interviewed persons who had entered the Narconon programme in Vårby Gård (at the Narconon Huddinge branch) just outside Stockholm in 1977. This presents an immediate problem with the veracity of the data, as Gerdman was dependent on Narconon's staff being scrupulously honest and impartial. In his introduction to his report, he refers to the problem of the "halo effect" (of the data gatherers polishing up the data), but concludes that since the staff are themselves former drug addicts and there is no monetary gain involved, such an effect is unlikely. This may, however, be overly optimistic as it does not take account of possible ideological motives - as the "Narconon and Scientology" section explains, L. Ron Hubbard's followers encourage (indeed, demand) an uncritically worshipful attitude towards their guru and his works. Oddly enough, he later writes that "the use of an independent scientific consultant constitutes a form of warranty against "sunshine research" [geared towards showing positive results rather than describing reality]. From the point of view of objectivity, it cannot be considered satisfactory to plan and execute an evaluation of one's own activities." In effect, he dismisses the worth of his own research methods.

When the actual figures gathered by Gerdman are considered, it is hardly surprising that Narconon has been so reluctant to publish the study. They show that:

The overall completion rate was thus 23%.

Of the 14 who completed the programme, 13 were contacted a year later (the last could not be reached). When asked if they had used drugs any time during the year after completing the programme, 7 said yes; 4 said no; 2 said they didn't know. Those who had used drugs had taken heroin (5), amphetamine (3), marijuana (3) and alcohol (more than temporary intake) (2). When asked if they were presently, i.e. within the last month of the interview, taking drugs, 11 said no, 1 said yes, 1 said they didn't know.

Of those who left Narconon before completion, 24 of 47 were interviewed. 10 said they were drug free (41.6% of those surveyed, 16.4% of the total). This group of people appears to be omitted entirely from any statistics quoted by Narconon.

The 84.6% percent figure quoted by the Narconon and the Church of Scientology corresponds to 11 out of the 13 people interviewed after completion saying that they were not using drugs presently. The alternative figure of 78.6 percent refers to 11 out of the 14 completions (but is skewed due to the uncontactable 14th person being counted as a failure). This is, to say the least, a very partial presentation of figures which overall are extremely unflattering for Narconon:

If the latter figure - those who completed the course and claim to have completely turned their backs on drugs - is taken as the eventual success rate. Compare this with the rates quoted in Ron the Humanitarian - "The rate among similarly comprehensive rehabilitation clinics, even when patients are “handpicked,” averages but 15 percent, often as low as 1.6 percent." If this is so, then Narconon is achieving poor results even by its own standards. If the results of the study are treated as being generic for all Narconon branches, which is how Narconon itself treats it, then it suggests that:

There can be little doubt that the success rates found by Gerdman's studies have seriously been misrepresented. The Scientology publication Ron the Humanitarian states that "Even a year after completion of the program, independent Swedish studies found a full 84.6 percent of Narconon graduates remaining entirely drug-free." [Narconon Sydney home page - <> and Ron the Humanitarian - <>] In fact, the Gerdman study showed that only 6.6% of Narconon Huddinge clients "remain drug-free permanently" - if this is any way typical, it represents a success rate only one-eleventh of that which is claimed. Similarly, Narconon International's website states that "61 drug abusers who graduated from Narconon Huddinge ... [were] followed for four years after they completed the program. Although 69 percent had been using drugs for 6 to 10 years prior to coming to the Narcononprogram [sic], and nearly all were addicted to a multitude of different drugs, four years later 78.6 percent were drug free." This suggests that Gerdman managed to follow all 61 individuals, which he did not, and that the 78.6% figure relates to the full sample of 61, which it does not (and cannot - 78.6% of 61 people is an impossible 47.946 people). It also does not mention the fact that the 61 individuals represented only 23% of the entire intake, the rest having dropped out prior to graduation. ["Summary of Evaluations of the Narconon® Program over the Last 30 Years", Narconon International - <>] In fact, it is remarkably hard to find any figures from Narconon on what percentage of its clients manage to graduate.

The Spanish Study

Another source which Narconon often quotes is a study, variously described as "official" and "independent" said to have been carried out in Spain. Narconon Montreal cites this study on its website:

In a study conducted in Spain by an independent sociological research foundation it was found that 78% of the individuals were still off drugs two years after they completed the program. In another study in Sweden, it was found that 80% of the Narconon graduates who completed the program were still drug-free five years after completing the program.

The Spanish study also showed that before entering the Narconon program 62.2% committed robberies and 73% sold drugs. After the Narconon program, robberies and drug dealing decreased to 0%. In other words, 100% had no criminal activity after the program.

The Spanish study was conducted by a sociological group called Tecnicos Asociados de Investigacion y Marketing (TAIM). They have conducted other studies for the Ministry of Health, the Social Services Department of the Town Hall of Madrid, and the National Institute of Social Services of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security...
["Narconon Professional Endorsements" -<>]

The date of this study is usually not given but where it is disclosed, it is claimed to be either 1985 or 1987. Like the Swedish study, its source is also only rarely named - it is more usually attributed to "an independent sociological research foundation". A Spanish writer on cults, Pepe Rodríguez, investigated the matter after Scientology and Narconon became embroiled in a major public controversy which saw the President of the Church of Scientology International arrested and released on a $1m bail (which he promptly forfeited). [See <> (in Spanish). Sr Rodríguez has a website focusing on cults at <>] It is unclear what TAIM's relationship with Narconon was, as the organisation no longer appears to exist. Prior to the production of the TAIM report, Narconon had become the subject of public criticism apparently after dissatisfied customers began to complain. Rodríguez reports that a meeting was held between Narconon executives and a Scientology lawyer, Jose Luis Chamorro, on 14 January 1987, in which Chamorro advised that "if we are able to demonstrate that 60% of the students of Narconon really are rehabilitated, we will be able to utilize this to show the effectiveness of our system [and defend] against the attacks on Narconon." (In itself, this is very intriguing; Narconon had been operating in Spain for nearly four years, so why had it not already demonstrated its effectiveness?) Tecnicos Asociados de Investigacion y Marketing (TAIM) was hired to do the study, which it conducted in March/April 1987, and subsequently reported that 78.37% of individuals who had completed Narconon in 1985 were drug-free.

However, the raw figures reveal considerable statistical creativity. For a start, it is impossible to derive a figure of 78.37% from a sample of 52 people; that corresponds to 40.7524 people, an obviously impossible number (what is 0.7524 of a person?). The sample size does not support that precise a measurement of the success rate. The same statistical oddity prevails throughout the TAIM survey - many of the figures which it cites range from dubious to simply impossible. As Dr. David Touretzky of Carnegie-Mellon University puts it, "anyone who would make that kind of elementary mistake is clearly not familiar with scientific research, much less competent to conduct same." [Conversation with the author.]

The individuals concerned came from several areas of Spain but the only Narconon centre surveyed was that at Los Molinos, near Madrid, which at the time was one of four such centres in Spain. 93 people were contacted for the survey (73.8% of those who had passed through the centre in 1985, which has a capacity of 30 people at a time), of whom 52 - little more than half - responded. The 1985 intake was the only one surveyed, despite the centre having been open since 1983.

Of those interviewed, 78.4% said that they had recommended the Narconon programme to others, 78.37% reported that they performed jobs for Narconon and 78% reported that they were no longer using drugs. It is highly likely that these very nearly identical percentages comprise the same group of about 40 people. The fact that so many of those who responded worked for Narconon severely skews the results; the sample is, in effect, a self-selecting one in which the drug-free were almost certainly heavily over-represented. The success rate is far less impressive when compared with the total number of those contacted - only 43% of the total reported being drug-free - and even less impressive compared with the total yearly intake of approximately 120 - about 33%. It also notably omits the important question asked in the Swedish survey, namely whether those reporting to be drug-free had not used any drugs since completing the course.

The great majority of those interviewed were of above average socioeconomic backgrounds: 17.3% classed themselves as wealthy, 67.3% as well-off and only 15.4% as average-to-low earners. This is highly significant: sociological studies have repeatedly demonstrated the close link between drug addiction and poverty, and drug addiction is principally an affliction of the poor. Los Molinos' graduates, therefore, were far from representative of drug users as a whole. As Rodríguez points out, it is also indicative of the way that Narconon's high costs filter out those who cannot afford it (which in practice means most drug users). Interestingly, the socioeconomic class of the graduates had a major influence on their successful completions. While the average time of completion was 160.8 days (about five months), on average the wealthy completed the programme in 97.5 days (about three months), the well-off in 123.8 days (four months) and the average-to-low earners in 174.6 days (almost six months). It is hard to envisage how wealth could make such a drastic difference to the results of a residential course, unless those involved were receiving differing levels of treatment due to their varying abilities to pay.

The extremely strange statistical figures given in this study make it difficult to take its findings seriously, and the obvious methodological flaws do not help either. Without actually having a copy of the study report - Narconon claims to have it "on file" but it does not appear to have been made available anywhere, either in print or on the Web - it is impossible to evaluate the methodology used. In terms of providing a satisfactory analysis of Narconon's efficacy, it is effectively useless.

The Oklahoman Studies

Narconon claims to have conducted a number of studies of its effectiveness at its Chilocco (now Arrowhead) branch in Oklahoma in the United States. These do not appear to have been published, so there is no way of gauging their reliability or methodology. However, a few figures have been given by Narconon Arrowhead's executive director, Gary Smith, in an interview with the Oklahoman newspaper on 1 July 2001. The Chilocco facility was said to have had 2,029 clients since it opened; in 2000, 352 students enrolled and 185 graduated (a graduation rate of 52.5%) and from January through to the end of June 2001, 350 entered and 189 graduated (a rate of 54%). An overall success rate of 70-74% is claimed for the graduates, producing an overall success rate of only 40% of all entrants to the Narconon programme. Narconon does make this distinction in some cases, although it never seems to allude to the much lower overall success rates - for instance, the Narconon Arrowhead website (at states that "70% of Narconon Graduates Beat Their Drug Addiction Permanently" (my underlining). Yet the same Narconon branch's printed literature makes no such distinction; a letter from its Admissions Coordinator claims that "we achieve a very high success rate; that success rate is 76%, the highest in the nation" and its promotional brochure states that "The Narconon® Program Achieves A 74% Success Rate". The claim is not qualified in any way (and there is no explanation of why the same source should quote three different percentages). A search of Narconon's websites suggests that the unqualified claim is used far more often than the qualified one, giving a very misleading view - going by Narconon's own figures - of its success rates. At the very least, it shows a remarkably careless use of statistics.

There are literally hundreds of instances on Narconon's websites of the claimed Oklahoman success rates being presented in a very misleading and occasionally downright untruthful fashion. For instance, the websites of Narconon Sydney and a number of other Narconon organisations declare that "76% of Narconon® Clients remain drug-free permanently!". If around 45-50% of its clients drop out, which Narconon's own figures suggest, this cannot possibly be true. Likewise, the Oklahoman results are treated as being universally applicable. The official Narconon FAQ, which appears to be a standard pro-forma document disseminated with minor changes by Narconon branches as far apart as Oklahoma and New South wales, declares bluntly that "Our success rate is 76%" (where "our" is clearly meant to refer to the local branch). ["Frequently Asked Questions About Narconon Arrowhead" - <>] Almost identical versions of the same document are distributed by Narconon branches around the world, with only the name of the branch changing. In other words, at each individual branch of Narconon a 76% success rate is supposedly achieved. This is quite clearly untrue. The Oklahoman results were produced at one Narconon organisation in one country for a limited period of time; there is simply no way that such a small survey can be extrapolated for Narconon as a whole.

Other Studies

Narconon occasionally quotes a number of other studies of its efficacy. No copies have been been obtained by the author, so comment is necessarily confined to what Narconon itself says about the studies (with all the attendant uncertainties that brings).

Narconon International's website states:

In 1998, an "Expertise of the Drug Rehabilitation Program at Narconon Moscow" was prepared by U.D. Gurochkin M.D., N.N. Grigoriev (Lecturer, Russian Interior Ministry), and V.V. Khlystoun (Special Correspondent "Trud" [Labor]). Studying the files and medical documents of 32 students who had completed the Narconon program between 1995 and 1998, their research included health examinations, evaluation of objective and subjective data following program completion including drug screens, and evaluation of the students’ mental condition.

Their final "Conclusions" state, "Professional study of Narconon materials and the medical-psychological investigation of 32 patients has shown:

1. The Narconon Method’s ratio of efficiency is 72%, demonstrated by study of the patient histories.

2. Professional inspection of patients’ physical and mental condition has shown significant improvements.

3. The Narconon Program can be recommended to the State Narcology Institutes of the Ministry of Health for application."
["Summary of Evaluations of the Narconon® Program over the Last 30 Years" - <>]

Until late 2002, a fourth author was included on the list - "Vladimir E. Ivanov (Candidate of Medical Sciences)". ["Narconon - Reducing the Drug Problem" - this page is no longer available on Narconon's website but was formerly at <>] However, in June 2001, Dr. Ivanov publicly broke with Narconon and Scientology, denouncing the latter as a "criminal cult". He has since become a non-person in the eyes of Narconon; in the most recent version of the page on the Russian study, his name has been removed from the list of authors. Narconon's "disappearance" of Dr. Ivanov has a certain irony in a country with such a long history of erasing the politically inconvenient from history.

The Russian study was almost certainly prompted by the Russian Ministry of Health's prohibition in 1996 of the use of the Narconon programme in the Russian public health system. Several problems are immediately apparent with this study:

In short, the quoted study results are so vaguely stated and so poorly documented that, once again, it is impossible to draw any reliable conclusions from them.

In January 1977, the Californian city of Palo Alto made an evaluation of a contract with Narconon which it had recently terminated. Narconon was deemed to have failed to meet its performance targets, due at least in part to poor internal administration, and its success rates were also not encouraging; between 1 July 1975 and 1 February 1976, 43% of those enrolled on Narconon's course quit before completing it. The authors of the study did not examine whether the remainder were certifiably drug-free afterwards, apparently being more concerned with throughput than outcomes. (See "Annual Performance Evaluation of the City of Palo Alto's Contract with Narconon Palo Alto" for details.)

Narconon International also cites a number of "Drug reversion surveys of Narconon graduates done in the 1970s" in various prisons in the United States:

The California Dept. of Corrections reported on 19 inmates who had participated in the Narconon program while in prison. 17 had been paroled. 12 of these were reported as clean (70%). Of the 5 remaining, 2 were not found, 2 had been arrested and one had been suspended from the program due to cocaine use.

The California Institute for Women reported on 25 Narconon clients. 23 had been paroled. 18 of these were clean (78%). Of the remaining, 3 were parolees at large and 2 had been re-arrested.

The Arizona Correctional Authority reported on 76 Narconon students who had been released from prison. 32 were found. 24 of these were clean (75%).

Rikers Island Institute for Men in New York. Of the 81 students who had started the voluntary Narconon program, 43 had completed the initial program. 21 of these had been paroled and 17 were contacted. 14 of these were clean (82 percent of those found, 67 percent of total parolees).
["Summary of Evaluations of the Narconon® Program over the Last 30 Years" - <>]

The veracity of these reported results has not yet been confirmed. Again, however, the survey reports are not published anywhere, no information is provided of their authors or methodologies, the samples are small and only the "headline" statistics are given. Even the dates are not given, although in the case of California it was probably before October 1974, when the State Evaluation Committee strongly criticised the programme and recommended a termination of funding. Narconon states that "all these studies had been done prior to the development of the Narconon New Life Detoxification Program", which must mean some time before 1978; they therefore represent a very different Narconon programme to that which exists today. As even the very existence of these studies cannot be confirmed, let alone the veracity of the reported results, they are of little use as evidence.

Some of Narconon's claimed success rates in correctional facilities were considered in 1974 by the California State Department of Health's assessment team, but were rejected out of hand as "simply not true":

a. Public Descriptions by Pamphlets, Notices, etc.: The 86% "cure rate" is totally unfounded. Narconon publishes a voluminous amount of paper for the purpose of public relations. The main Narconon rehabilitation program bulletin states that a high percentage of clients, approximately 75%, are rehabilitated within 3 months. The pamphlet further states that one supervisor can supervise 42 people a day in three 3-hour periods. Furthermore, one supervisor can train 14 new supervisors in three months.

b. Misleading Claims: Narconon claims to have an 86% cure rate for narcotics addicts which is simply not true. Mr. Greg Zerovnik, National Director - Narconon U.S., explained that the 86% figure came from a study of parolees from the Arizona State Prison who may or may not have been narcotics addicts. This sort of claim is, of course, misleading to both the prospective client and to public officials who are sincerely attempting to find ways to cope with the problem of drug abuse.

Narconon also advertises detoxification with mega-vitamins and other non-medical procedures that may be hazardous and in some cases lethal. Attachment 19 is a Narconon letter to the East Valley Free Clinic advertising an extraordinarily expensive detoxification procedure. It furthermore claims a 68% two year "success rate" for drug abstinence and for arrests "for anything related to drugs." It implies that these success ratios are applicable to heroin addicts and alcoholics. This claim is either misleading or miraculous. Without supporting data the evaluation team cannot but presume this document, however enticing, is a misleading claim.

Narconon implies that it can raise I.Q.'s and generally increase communication skills for their clients. There is no scientific evidence that these alleged changes cause a cure in approximately 50% of cases seen as stated by Mark Jones [then Executive Director of Narconon] in a Los Angeles Times article.
["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]

One prison study which Narconon does not mention, for some reason, is that conducted in Ionia State Prison, Michigan in April 1980. Between 1978 and 1980, some 200 inmates were put through the Narconon programme under a contract with the state's Department of Corrections. The Department's Program Bureau examined the recidivism records of those who had been paroled prior to 1 September 1979, so as to provide six months of community experience to study. 14 were excluded as not having a prior history of substance abuse (so why were they in Narconon in the first place?), leaving 29 individuals who had a history of substance abuse and had completed at least part of the Narconon course. Only one of the 29 had actually completed the programme - barely a 3.5% completion rate - while the majority, some 79.3%, had got halfway through. The study concluded that "the graduates from the program clearly are not doing as well as the average prisoner going to the community ... [they] do not do as well as our population in general." Four of Narconon's graduates (including the one who completed the course) committed a new felony and went back to jail; five committed technical violations of their parole; seven absconded; and thirteen were "maintained under supervision" (i.e. they abided by the terms of their parole). Overall, the recidivism rate was just over 55%. This compared unfavourably with the return rate from other programmes in Michigan, which "has varied between 28% and 40%, historically." Overall, "the optimism of [Narconon's] supporters in [the] belief that it will produce significant behavioral change for the long run is not supported." [Evaluation of Narconon program in Ionia State Prison, Michigan Dept. of Corrections Program Bureau, 7 April 1980]

  • Studies


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