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JENNIFER LUDDEN, NPR: The state of California is reviewing a controversial anti-drug program used in some of its public schools. The program is called Narconon and it's tied to Scientology, a religion founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The anti-drug program came to our attention through a series of reports in the San Francisco Chronicle, articles that prompted that city's school superintendent to bar the Narconon lectures from public classrooms. The reporter who investigated the Narconon program is Nanette Asimov and she joins me now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome.
NANETTE ASIMOV: Thank you.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Remind us how the Narconon program developed and what the link with the Church of Scientology is.
NANETTE ASIMOV: Ask Narconon if they're connected with Scientology and they will say "Not officially". They have arranged it so that it's legally and financially separate. But Scientologists--and they're very proud of this--finance Narconon independently and they promote Narconon on their religious web site. So the connection is this--as part of Scientology, anti-drug is very important because it figures into their religious beliefs. And so there is this secular, what they call the secular program called Narconon that was founded in the '60s and became more and more connected with Scientology processes in the late '70s as L. Ron Hubbard saw that it could be used to bring the religion or religious principles out into the public. And so this became a classroom project, oh, I guess around that time, maybe in the early '80s. And now it is a program, an anti-drug program, in about 35 states and across California.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: And yet you ran into principals who didn't even know this was being taught in their schools?
NANETTE ASIMOV: Some principals actually welcomed it into their schools, but others didn't know because the Narconon lecturers contact teachers independently. Maybe they know a teacher through, um, friendship, perhaps through church activities or just they knock on the door and say "Wouldn't you like a free anti-drug program in the schools?" And, not surprisingly, many teachers do.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: So is, is this an issue on the content of the curriculum or the link to Scientology religion or both? What's the, the pressing issue for the schools here?
NANETTE ASIMOV: Both. You got it. It's very hard to tell if you're a teacher or even a reporter coming in new to this thing. It's very hard to tell that religious principles are being communicated. It doesn't really sound like theology. But if you study Scientology a little bit, then you see a great deal of overlap in the language and the concepts. On the other side, the science being taught is a problem, and I think that the investigations by the state and by local school districts are really focusing on that.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: So what specifically are they teaching students?
NANETTE ASIMOV: Well, in terms of science, what they're teaching is that drugs of all kinds stay in your fat indefinitely, and from within your fat. they scramble pictures in your mind. This is an actual phrase that, that is used. And that when you sweat, drugs can excrete from your body and cause you to re-experience whatever drug trip you had or re-experience the feeling of being high. In fact, the way drugs work is that they mimic the neurotransmitters in your brain, and they do not remain indefinitely in your fat.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Well, if the goal is to get teenagers not to do drugs, is there any evidence that the Narconon program works?
NANETTE ASIMOV: Well, um, no. It is very popular, yes, but the federal government has a rigorous review process in which they evaluate anti-drug programs in schools and they label them effective or model or promising or something like that. And although Narconon has been around for over 20 years, for one reason or another it has never chosen to undergo that process, and so nobody has really evaluated it for effectiveness. Maybe it's effective, but we just don't know.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: How have officials with Narconon and the Church of Scientology responded to this controversy?
NANETTE ASIMOV: They defend this view of drugs in your fat and they say that their science is very sound. They say that it's a secular program and they've been very cooperative with all the investigations in the districts, including Los Angeles is doing one, or has done one, and they've ousted Narconon. And so the Narconon is now working with the state, being very cooperative, and I think that they're very much hoping to remain in the schools. And, uh, it's quite possible that the way that they've always done it, going to individual teachers, they'll continue to be able to do without kind of going under the radar of school districts.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Nanette Asimov is education writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thanks so much.
NANETTE ASIMOV: Thank you.
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