On September 15, the Trump administration nominated former criminal investigator and Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association president Jon Adler as the Department of Justice’s Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance. In that role, Adler will not only help set national criminal justice policy, he’ll also oversee all relevant state and local grant programs. Judging by one of Adler’s initiatives, this should make the Church of Scientology very, very happy.
That’s because in addition to his official role at FLEOA, Adler spent a number of years on the advisory board of the Heroes Health Fund, a group that purports to offer support for “firefighters, police, EMTs, veterans, and others harmed by toxic exposures in the line of duty” using a detoxification program developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
That program has existed under a variety of names over the years, including Purif, the Purification Rundown, Narconon, and the Hubbard Method. It posits that bodies and spirits can be “purified” through a combination of extensive, sauna-induced sweat sessions, a niacin-heavy multivitamin, light exercise, and the consumption of pure vegetable oil. Hubbard, of course, had no medical training of any kind, and his detoxification method has been denounced by countless institutions and medical professionals, such as the Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts, the California Medical Association, the National Council Against Health Fraud, and a former Surgeon General of the United States.
The Church has also tried to sell its detoxification methods to the public in the form of a number of different programs; those that target veterans and law enforcement officers now live under the general umbrella of the Heroes Health Fund, itself a product of the International Academy of Detoxification Specialists, a membership group that describes itself as “united by an interest in the use of the detoxification procedure developed by L. Ron Hubbard to address the problems of chemical exposure and drug abuse.”
Adler is currently listed as a member of Heroes Health’s advisory board (albeit with his first name slightly misspelled) along with prominent Scientologists John Travolta, Kelly Preston, and Danny Masterson.
The official Scientology website even has a section for its detoxification program under the explanation of Auditing (a one-on-one, deeply personal interview process that is supposed to free the participant of spiritual burdens). Here, it’s referred to as the Purification Rundown, which was developed by Hubbard when he decided that the toxins present in our modern world “can prevent any stable advancement in mental or spiritual well-being” (or in Scientology terms, they can prevent someone from reaching the ultimate state of enlightenment and “going clear”).
The Heroes Health Fund website offers a general overview of its treatment, which comes straight out of Hubbard’s methodology:
There are appropriate uses of the term detoxification, such as when treating severe poisonings in emergency situations, but Hubbard’s use of the term instead describes the removal of “often unspecified” environmental chemicals responsible for varied health problems, says William M. London, a professor in the Department of Public Health at Cal State LA. “This kind of fashionable nonsense is often promoted with euphemisms such as ‘holistic,’ ‘alternative,’ and ‘integrative’ medicine,” says London. “Various medical renegades and rascals such as L. Ron Hubbard have promoted various gimmicks for this kind of detoxification.”
And while some participants reported feeling better after treatment, it does not, in this case, mean becoming healthier, at least in the detoxifying ways the method purports. “It’s not extraordinary to think that people will feel better after regularly exercising and sauna bathing,” says London. “But feeling better or having good scores on various health measures doesn’t mean that any detoxification occurred or that chemical toxicity was the cause of health problems to begin with.”
That Adler put stock in a discredited regimen puts him in league with other recent Trump appointees; Trump’s newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, used to hawk bogus anti-aging medicine. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson used to promote a brand of nutritional supplements that claimed it could cure autism and cancer. And Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price belonged to a group that holds strong anti-vaccine views and has claimed that abortions cause breast cancer. But in Adler’s proposed role overseeing national law enforcement initiatives, he will be in a position to perpetuate a dubious detoxification program that some have suggested doubles as a Scientology recruiting tool.
Adler advocated for the Scientology-based program as far back as 2010, when he asked for government reimbursement for a federal officer who wanted to enroll in the Utah Meth Cop Detox Program, one of the local programs under the Heroes Health Fund’s umbrella. Speaking to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2010 in his role as FLEOA president, Adler noted several instances in which law enforcement officials didn’t receive the funds necessary to treat their various job-related injuries. He focused specifically on Special Agent Tim Chard, and his treatment in the Utah Meth Cop Detox Program—a method that was based off the Ground Zero Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, which comes directly from Hubbard’s pseudoscientific “detoxification” program.
According to Adler’s statement, Chard busted and dismantled more than 100 meth labs in Utah over the course of seven years. About a year after, though, Chard “started to experience a variety of symptoms that have been linked to others who have suffered from severe meth lab exposure.” From Adler’s testimony:
He is evaluated by Dr. Gerald Ross who is considered an expert in the area of meth lab exposure, who writes a letter saying definitively that, based on his review and his examination of Chard, it looks like he is suffering from these symptoms, and he recommends him being enrolled in the Utah Meth Cop Detox Program, which has worked extraordinarily well for 40 other individuals having served in that area and having similar exposure. His claim is denied, so my organization paid to send him to this detox program. He went through it 30 days and he came out born again. His high blood pressure stabilized, blood sugar stabilized, his migraines are gone, chronic diarrhea gone, and just a host of the other symptoms that otherwise we thought he was actually going to go down for the count.
Adler further lamented that Chard’s agency wouldn’t pay to relocate the agent to an office closer to the detox program. (He would eventually call on actor Vincent D’Onofrio to help publicize the cause; D’Onofrio apparently obliged.)
The Utah Meth Cop Detox Program, which began in 2007, specifically targeted police officers in Utah who had been exposed to dangerous chemicals in the process of busting up meth labs. Click the word “detox” in a sidebar on the group’s now-defunct website, though, and the very first line proudly declares that “only one method for reducing body levels of toxic chemicals has been internationally implemented, studied and demonstrated to be safe and effective: the detoxification program developed by L. Ron Hubbard.”
Hubbard’s detox methodology has received heavy scrutiny since at least the 1980s. A Toronto Star article from 1986 noted that the method “used by the Church of Scientology to advance members’ spiritual enlightenment” was offered at a Toronto health clinic under the name Narconon, a far-reaching incarnation of the detoxification method marketed as a drug rehab program. The Star reported that there is “no evidence in scientific literature” to support the program’s medical claims, and that the Church used the program as a recruiting tool. Not only did Narconon staffers have to pay the Church of Scientology for training in the method, the Star report said, but Narconon would receive a commission should any of its clients buy Scientology courses and materials from the Church after their treatments.
In response, Narconon denied to The Star that its ties to Scientology ran that deep: “‘Well, there is a connection, there’s a strong connection, and the connection is L. Ron Hubbard,’ said Bill Perry, executive director of Narconon. ‘We definitely use the methods developed by L. Ron Hubbard here. But we’re not here to indoctrinate people into the church. We’re here to get people off drugs.'”
But the Church of Scientology’s own internal messaging suggests it has at least at some point viewed the detoxification program generally as a recruitment tool. In 1982, a Church memo made the program’s aims even more explicit: “It is now nearly 2 years since we were advised of the need for the Overwhelming Public Popularity Campaign. Part of the original campaign idea was to really move out into society with the Purification Rundown and use it to bridge masses of people into Scientology.”
And that’s before you even get to the scientific soundness, which experts have roundly dismissed. In 1989 Bruce A. Roe, a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry the University of Oklahoma, wrote a scathing Narconon assessment. Among the various half-truths and factual inaccuracies cited by Roe, Hubbard also claims that there is “no such thing as a fat cell” (there is). “Overall the program proposed by Mr. Hubbard is pure unadulterated cow pies,” wrote Roe. “It is filled with some scientific truth but mainly is illogical and the conclusions drawn by Mr. Hubbard are without any basis in scientific fact.”
Just one year after that, William B. Svoboda, a pediatric neurologist, took a look at the program’s vitamin recommendations specifically, disputing Hubbard’s assertions about niacin as a cure-all. “The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a series of position statements over the past decade speaking against the use of megavitamin and trace element therapies for various childhood behavioral and mental aspects, with strong emphasis on adversive reactions to excesses,” Svoboda wrote. “These statements would apply to Hubbard’s claims.”
Narconon has also courted several legal challenges in recent years. In October 2011, 32-year-old Narconon client Gabriel Graves was found dead in his room. According to the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Graves’ mother, Shirley Gilliam, Graves “complained of a terrible headache following a period of time that he spent in a sauna pursuant to the ‘Sauna Program.'” After asking for over-the-counter pain relievers and permission to see a doctor, Graves was denied both (and told that there was no doctor on staff) before being told to return the sauna. He was found dead in his room the next morning, and the suit was eventually settled out of court. The following April, 21-year-old Hillary Holten died at the same facility, prompting another wrongful-death suit that was itself eventually dismissed.
Another since-settled lawsuit against Narconon complained that the program “essentially involves having the ‘students’ sitting a sauna and ingest high doses of niacin,” while another (also settled) fraud suit claimed that one client “left the program in the middle of the night in August 2011 after he witnessed one of his roommates at Narconon have a seizure.”
Ingratiating its detoxification program to government has been one of the Church of Scientology’s stated goals dating back to the ’70s. Hubbard boasted in a 1972 memo that “the incomparable Guardians Office have been running the Narconon (Drugs-no!) Program over the world. The Program is now fully subsidized—state paid—in one country and one state and contributed to by governments in several other locales. … Narconon is the ONLY successful drug rehabilitation program on the planet. It is being recognized as such.”
In fact, the federal government has already directed funds towards studying the Hubbard Method. In 2015, a Daily Beast report revealed that the Department of Defense approved $600,000 to fund an experimental study of the detoxification method for US veterans. After five months, the final report suggested inconclusive results.
It also caused an uproar. “Such investigations—especially when conducted with public money by our shared public institutions—must be held accountable both to reason and to standard, prudential research practices,” wrote the Center for Inquiry at the time. “This ‘treatment’ is not advocated by any medical or scientific organization, but instead only by the Church of Scientology.”
What’s more, the studies that Heroes Health Fund and its affiliates have attempted to use as proof of the method’s effectiveness are dubious in their own right. This study, for example, which was cited on both Narconon’s own website as well as that of one of the Heroes Health Fund projects, tell us nothing about the method’s actual effectiveness. According to London, not only was the actual exposure of the police officers to any particular chemical not measured, but the study didn’t have a control group. “Nothing was done to control for… anything that might have happened to the officers between pretesting and follow-up testing other than the Hubbard intervention,” says London. “Did the officers have time off work? The paper doesn’t say. Maybe time off work is more useful than the Hubbard intervention in promoting better self-reported health outcome scores.”
It’s unclear what prompted Adler to endorse the detoxification method in the first place; neither he nor the FLEOA have responded to WIRED’s requests for comment. His support concerns observers, though, especially given Adler’s proposed role to oversee the distribution of funding on a federal level to programs that could include Heroes Health Fund.
“The government has a responsibility to ensure that when it funds programs and studies, taxpayer money is not used to advance the interests of religion,” says Nick Little, vice president and general counsel for the Center for Inquiry. “A nominee with such close ties to a program that is so deeply connected to both the religious doctrine of the Church of Scientology, as well as its adherence to pseudo-science and dismissal of evidence-based scientific research, raises a red flag for us.”
When asked if the White House had been aware of Adler’s association with the Scientology-based program prior to making the nomination, the White House responded, “Please reach out to DOJ.” We did, and WIRED will update the story if and when we hear back.