New Life, old tricks

A SoMa rehab center offers local addicts "innovative" programs – without mentioning the organization's links to the Church of Scientology.

San Francisco Bay Guardian/December 21, 2005
By Tali Woodward

Personal values and Integrity. Ups and Downs in Life. The Way to Happiness.

To most people, the titles of the "Life Skills" courses offered at the New Life Center – a South of Market alcohol and drug rehabilitation program serving up to 80 people – probably sound like the silly but ultimately harmless jargon so common to self-help literature. –In fact, in many ways New Life is a beacon in a rough area with a huge demand for lower-cost drug treatment.

But there's another side to New Life, a side that the place doesn't advertise and that staffers are reluctant to acknowledge: New Life is using treatment programs designed by Church of Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard, whose theories about drug abuse are so controversial that they have been banned from the San Francisco public schools.

We couldn't find any mention of Scientology, Hubbard, or the rehab program he created, which is called Narconon, in any of the center's public materials.

But six of the nine Life Skills courses listed on New Life's Web site bear identical names to courses offered by Narconon. Four of the titles are also shared with classes offered directly by the Church of Scientology. "The Way to Happiness" is even trademarked by the Association for Better Living and Education, the umbrella nonprofit for Narconon and the three other large nonprofits that are closely tied to the Church.

Narconon – which is not connected to the better-known Narcotics Anonymous, sometimes called NarcAnon – shares some philosophical underpinnings with Scientology. It has also been criticized by medical experts for advancing theories that conflict with those of mainstream science – particularly Hubbard's notion that drugs are stored in fat cells for years and can cause "flashbacks" or cravings at any time. To remove the residues, Narconon recommends the New Life Detoxification program: a regimen of exercise, vitamins, and daily sessions in a dry sauna. (The program is essentially the same as the "purification rundown" that is a religious ritual in Scientology.)

The New Life Center offers the sauna program, though program administrators emphasize it is "optional." They acknowledge borrowing ideas and "technologies" from organizations linked to Scientology, but they insist New Life is not a religious program. "We are a secular program, and we intend to keep it that way," executive director Richard Prescott said.

But there are other connections between the Church and New Life that a potential client would have little way of knowing of, assuming he or she didn't search public records and Church documents.

What exactly is the center's relationship to this controversial treatment program and the sci fi-tinged church it's so closely tied to? And do the vulnerable, substance-addicted people who turn to New Life have any idea what they're getting into?


When I first contacted him, director of admissions John Spaw suggested we meet at Brainwash, the café-cum-Laundromat near New Life's two facilities. He politely explained that he used to work at another rehab program in SoMa and that, when the program went belly-up, he and a colleague searched high and low for funders to keep it going. Eventually a man named Richard Prescott emerged – a man Spaw described as "one of the most selfless guys I've ever met."

According to Spaw, Prescott put up the money to lease a new building, and on Dec. 3, 2003, "Forty-five clients and staff moved down the street from Tenth to Seventh, people carrying shopping bags and stuff."

The transition, Spaw said, gave New Life's three cofounders the opportunity to "reinvent the place." Today, he said, they treat up to 80 people with a wide range of addictions, many of whom are referred by nearby organizations.

"What we're trying to do is make treatment available and affordable to all," he said, pointing out that the program is relatively inexpensive for residential rehab: about $400 per week.

Finding a spot in a lower-cost residential treatment center in San Francisco is notoriously difficult. There are typically at least 100 people on waiting lists for city-subsidized residential treatment – and that doesn't include anyone who might be able to pay even slightly more.

Spaw had a lot to say about the New Life program. He described it as an amalgamation of several well-known treatment approaches like the 12-step and the Therapeutic Community models. And he referred to the Life Skills classes, which aim to teach values like "being honest" and "how to communicate effectively" – both of which are loudly trumpeted goals in Scientology. But he never made even a passing reference to Narconon.

Eventually, I asked about the sauna program, mentioning I understood Narconon advocated a similar approach. He said New Life modeled its program on one set up for emergency workers who worked in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. (Celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise reportedly helped finance it.)

Spaw said New Life's sauna program involves sitting in a sauna every day for up to four hours and "a very strict regimen of vitamin supplements," including niacin.

Some medical researchers have warned that large doses of Niacin can cause liver damage.

Is any other aspect of the New Life program borrowed from Narconon? He shook his head. (When asked about it later, he acknowledged that the Life Skills component comes from Criminon, a prison program that shares leadership and curriculum with Narconon.)

And Spaw said the center accepts a high percentage of clients who are taking methadone or psychotropic medications – which is somewhat unusual for residential programs and also in direct conflict with Scientology's adamantly antidrug, antipsychiatry position.

Then he took me on a brief tour of what he described as the center's main building, at 1082 Folsom. (Once clients have made some progress, he said, they have the option of moving into the smaller facility around the corner, at 219 Seventh St.). The few clients hanging around greeted him warmly, and everything seemed pretty standard. Except one employee's odd reference to how he'd spent a few prior years "in secular society" – and the signs for Criminon posted on a wall.

The critics

Scientology, which was founded by Hubbard in the early 1950s and established as a church a few years later, is never far from controversy. According to the local Church's Web site, "ScientologyR technology provides exact principles and a practical technology for improving spiritual awareness, self-confidence, intelligence and ability." But it has been accused of being a cult or a sort of pyramid scheme that depends on new members supplying donations, volunteer work, and even newer recruits. And the tales of Scientologists using troubling tactics to quell criticism or silence detractors could fill volumes.

David Touretzky, who is a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was basically clueless about Scientology until the mid-1990s, when he started hearing about the Church's alleged penchant for deleting criticism of its activities from Internet message boards.

Doubtful that the Scientologists were really so vigilant, he told me that, "as an experiment," he posted on the CMU Web page internal Scientology documents that had been released during a court case.

It's a fairly well-known Church tenet that human beings are occupied by eternal souls called thetans, and that human suffering is caused by difficult experiences those thetan occupiers endured during past lives.

But the documents Touretzky posted disclosed a deep Scientological secret that is usually only shared with advanced practitioners of the religion: that the thetans were dispersed on Earth 75 million years ago by some kind of interplanetary warlord named Xenu.

In other words, it's all about aliens.

A day or two after he posted the documents, Touretzky told me, Church representatives had "phoned, faxed, and FedEx'd" his university, threatening to sue for copyright violation. Ever since, he's been amassing information about the Church and its projects, which he posts to several Web sites he runs, including In the process, he's become something of an expert on the whole Hubbard crew.

Touretzky looked at the Web site for the New Life Center for all of five minutes before declaring, "This is definitely Narconon." He said the lack of reference to Scientology was really not that surprising – after all, Narconon has always been sold as a secular program created by "author and humanitarian L. Ron Hubbard" that is distinct from Scientology.

But Touretzky insists the rehab program is inseparable. "There is absolutely no scientific basis" for much of what is taught in Narconon, Touretzky said, including the idea that you can sweat drugs out of your body in a sauna. "That's the definition of religious instruction: stuff you're supposed to take on faith because the guru says so."

Experts who have evaluated Narconon have generally agreed that the program is not scientifically sound. Last year San Francisco Chronicle reporter Nanette Asimov uncovered how Narconon representatives were presenting the program's antidrug curriculum in public schools in San Francisco and other California towns.

In the review of the Narconon curriculum conducted for the California Department of Education, health experts concluded that it "does not reflect accurate, widely accepted medical and scientific evidence."

Steven Heilig, from the San Francisco Medical Society, oversaw a review by local experts. "The issues of saunas, of detox using these vitamins and minerals – they have a kernel of backing. But the way they use them is totally not backed by scientific research," he told me recently.

School administrators in San Francisco and other California districts have since barred Narconon from the public schools.

Company ties

The New Life Center has other connections to the Church of Scientology.

New Life executive director Prescott is a Scientologist listed in one Church magazine as a donor of at least $40,000. The official Scientology Web site lists him as a donor to the new San Francisco headquarters, on Montgomery Street. He's worked as a director of Narconon of Northern California, which runs a Narconon rehab facility in Watsonville.

When asked about his ties to the Church, Prescott told me, "I've been impressed with what they do, and I'm happy to identify myself as a Scientologist."

Corporation papers that the Social Betterment Development Co., the nonprofit that runs New Life, has filed with the state list two officers in addition to Prescott. Both names appear on numerous Church lists of people who have completed Scientology coursework.

And the center's Web site mentions using Bright Sky Learning, a literacy program run by Scientologists and listed in the Church's directory of affiliated businesses, which is geared toward enabling Church members to patronize other companies using Hubbard's "technologies."

Despite all this, Prescott told me New Life is absolutely not a Scientology program.

"Whatever works, we are embracing," he said. "The center is so much more than a license with Criminon."

Spaw too said New Life is not out to recruit new Scientologists: "We don't talk about Scientology. We don't preach it ... There is no hidden agenda."

License questions

Whatever its relationship to Scientology, the New Life Center also has a perplexing record with state and federal regulatory agencies.

Prescott told me that he's just a little behind in getting his paperwork in order and that everything will be sorted out soon. But at the moment, New Life's paper trail is pretty twisted.

For one thing, the Social Betterment Development Co. has neither registered with the state attorney general, as nonprofits are supposed to do, nor filed the proper tax forms. Internal Revenue Service spokesperson Jesse Weller told me that neither New Life nor Social Betterment is considered tax-exempt by the IRS. The rehab, however, is soliciting donations through its Web site, where a Federal Tax Identification Number is posted. Weller said the entity attached to that number is also not currently tax-exempt.

Prescott told me New Life will be able to apply its exemption retroactively.

Also, according to Lisa Fisher of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, the Folsom Street outpost does not have a state license. Sober-living homes do not necessarily have to be licensed as long as they are not providing "treatment." But Spaw and Prescott both said the Folsom facility is the "main house" where new clients begin their stay. (The facility on Seventh Street has been licensed since November 2004 to provide residential treatment to six people at a time.)

Fisher also told me her department has received two separate complaints about New Life. She said she couldn't provide any more details about those complaints because they are under investigation.

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