An opposition TD has said he plans to introduce new legislation to regulate private addiction services unless the government takes action urgently.
Peadar Toibín, Sinn Féin TD for Meath West, was speaking in the wake of confirmation from a controversial Scientology-linked group, Narconon, that it plans to move ahead with a contentious “drug treatment centre” in the Meath village of Ballivor, which has already been met with significant local opposition.
Yesterday, a statement from a PR firm that also handles press for the Church of Scientology in Ireland confirmed that Narconon planned to open a new “multi-million euro facility” at the site of a former school.
Thirty-four ‘students’ would be catered for at the facility, the statement said, adding that the programme was “entirely drug-free – it utilises and tolerates no drugs”.
“Narconon is a non-profit, non-religious, drug rehabilitation programme aimed at those looking to get off alcohol and drugs and helping them lead better lives,” the group claimed.
Narconon already operates in the US, UK and a number of other countries around the world – but this would be the first such centre in Ireland.
The group’s methods have proven highly contentious. Their drug detoxification programme uses high doses of vitamins along with long periods in dry saunas, which, it says, helps to flush toxins out of a person’s body.
Narconon-providing facilities have also been involved in wrongful death lawsuits in the US. There were four deaths in three years at one facility in the US – although these have not been linked specifically to the treatment administered during the programme.
The Department of Health said in response to a query from TheJournal.ie that it had no jurisdiction over agencies that provide private addiction treatment services, adding:
There is currently no provision in legislation for the regulation or inspection of residential treatment or rehabilitation centres specialising in addiction.
There are already a number of such centres around the country run by various organisations – including religious congregations.
“Organisations which provide addiction services and are funded by the HSE are required to meet minimum standards in the delivery of services across a range of criteria which form the basis of any service level agreement,” the Department’s statement said.
The HSE has informed the Department of Health that there is no evidence to suggest that the drug treatment programme, provided by the organisation referred to would meet with any of the criteria set out by the HSE for agencies that provide addiction services on its behalf.
The Department did offer this rebuke of the treatments offered by Narconon:
The organisation’s drug treatment programme comprises a series of interventions with limited or no basis in a scientific understanding of human physiology and brain functioning.
And it advised:
The Department of Health would advise anyone seeking treatment for addiction to contact their local HSE Addiction Service.
Toibín said the fact that there was currently no regulation governing how residential drug rehabilitation centres operated represented a “massive gap” in the government’s responsibilities.
If they were regulated people would be able to have confidence that, right across the country, not just at this site in Meath, that individuals in this vulnerable state would be protected.
Toibín said that in addition to closer scrutiny of the centres themselves, the qualifications of the staff employed to administer the courses also needed to be regulated.
Dr Garrett McGovern, a specialist in addiction medicine who runs clinics in Dublin city centre, claimed that some non-HSE-endorsed drug rehabilitation centres already in operation did not use evidence-based methods.
Yesterday’s statement on behalf of Narconon, for instance, criticised the use of “replacement drugs” to treat addiction. To focus on one specific substance, currently opiate substitution therapy – methadone – is the most common course of action used to treat heroin addiction in Ireland.
There are currently around 10,000 people receiving treatment for opiate dependence in the State.
“The research is quite clear – opiate substitution treatment is far superior to any other intervention in terms of outcomes,” McGovern told TheJournal.ie.
“You have to remember what outcomes are – don’t get into the trap of ‘you’re addicted to one drug and now you are addicted to another drug’ – that’s not how we measure outcomes.
“We measure outcomes on physical health, mental health, levels of injecting, transition of blood-borne viruses and infections, social functioning – that’s how we measure whether someone is getting better.
If we are to get real about this, if we are to suddenly say that being on a medication or off a medication is the success of an intervention for a disease, well then why are diabetics on insulin for life?
I don’t want to get into that whole trap of comparing drug addiction with other diseases – but the point is valid that there are many, many people in this country who are on life-saving medications and on them for life because they work to reduce symptoms.
McGovern said that while he had serious problems with the methods employed at some addiction centres currently in operation, it may prove very difficult to introduce appropriate regulation.
“I’m not against idea of regulation – but I wouldn’t like to see regulation where people end up getting less access to treatment,” McGovern said.
There are places that are saving people’s lives even though they are not particularly faithful to the evidence – there’s a lot of religious places for instance, they treat people that no-one else will touch. They might not do it in a very scientific way.
Whatever instrument is used to impose new regulations in this sector, he said, “will need to be well calibrated”.
Toibín said that he was conscious of the fact that many organisations do good work, adding: ”This is a tightrope that we will have to tread as we compose our legislation.”
“There needs to be some level of minimum standards and oversight,” he said.
“These are the most vulnerable people you can meet, and there’s a responsibility by the State to protect them.”
If legislation is brought in to govern inspections, it won’t be ready in time for the expected opening of the Ballivor Narconon centre in May.
Speaking about Narconon specifically, Toibín said:
It would be very foolish of any organisation to spend money in the State that, if regulated, may not be able to continue. I’d ask them to consider what legislation is coming down the tracks and to keep that in their thought process.
A consultant psychiatrist in substance misuse from the National Drug Treatment Centre previously told TheJournal.ie that interventions of the kind used by Narconon had no basis in science.
The doctor said:
Scientology’s drug treatment programme has no standing amongst medical professionals involved in the treatment of persons with alcohol and drug use disorders.
It comprises a series of interventions (‘Narconon’) with limited or no basis in a scientific understanding of human physiology and brain functioning and may potentially be harmful directly (with overuse of vitamins and other products) and indirectly in that persons are engaging in an intervention with no evidence of potential benefit for them.
The Ballivor Narconon centre is expected to begin operations at the site of a former national school in the village in late May this year.
Hundreds of people turned out to protest the planned centre in January. Yesterday, a group of locals attended Leinster House to give a presentation to TDs about their concerns.
They also handed in a petition protesting the presence of the centre in their community, which was accepted by an official from the Department of Health.