Govt money for Scientology's drug programme

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 19/02/2012

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A controversial Church of Scientology drug-awareness programme has received government funding to spread its unorthodox views through schools and community groups.

In the past six months, drug-free ambassadors linked to the church have circulated 130,000 drug education booklets around New Zealand, paid for in part by the Department of Internal Affairs' Community Organisations Grant Scheme.

The ambassadors claim at least 18 community groups – including their "partners" the Maori Wardens – plus at least seven high schools, endorse and use the materials.

Advice offered in the pamphlets is based on research by Scientology's controversial founder, LRon Hubbard, who did not believe in medical drugs or psychiatry but instead in purging oneself of painful experiences to gain immortality.

Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, warned that the group's information was flawed pseudo-science and could prove harmful to youth.

"This kind of quackery should not be in our schools – we are talking about young people's lives," he said.

"Drug and alcohol issues are complex and therefore we need well-qualified, proper, evidence-based support advice and information."

Bell said Scientology's views on mental health were not based on science, and had been discredited "time and time again" in the countries they worked in.

Other critics, including former Scientologists, say the drug-free ambassadors are also a front group aimed at recruitment which does not openly disclose its ties to the church.

The group, which has various aliases, has also come under fire overseas, including in Australia where its links to the government were described as "worrying".

However, the Church of Scientology New Zealand says its anti-drug group is not aimed at recruitment, instead wanting only to arm young people with factual information about drugs.

"We promote good educational materials on the drugs in use on the streets that people of all ages can relate to and decide for themselves whether or not to start using," said Mike Ferriss, head of Scientology in New Zealand.

He said the booklets were based partially on Hubbard's teachings, plus using local statistics and information.

Only some of the money came from government, Ferriss said. The International Association of Scientologists also made a grant. "As a group we believe that something effective can be done about any problem and it does not have to cost a lot of money."

Several groups of Maori Wardens, which are mainly volunteer organisations funded by the taxpayer, have partnered with the drug-free ambassadors.

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One of the group's leaders, Rita Peters, is a warden, a Scientologist and an ambassador. She spends much of her time handing out the booklets in places like Otahuhu and Mangere in South Auckland.

Mangere ward leader Thomas Henry said he talked with the group after its members consistently approached him with their pamphlets. He said drugs and alcohol were a problem in South Auckland and there was a need for the material.

"For us, it was free information. We don't have money to pay for these resources so we were thankful that we were able to have a relationship with them," Henry said.

Figures show that during 2011 the Church of Scientology New Zealand, a registered charity, listed its income for 2010 as $1.2 million. Drug-Free Ambassadors, also a registered charity, had an income of approximately $6700, of which $6500 was grants.

Green MP Kevin Hague said any funding given to a group that was a front for the church should be stopped.

"In the case of someone who is struggling with drugs, they are very vulnerable. So their exploitation by the church for their own ends is despicable."

King's College principal Bradley Fenner took up an invitation to speak at an event run by the drug-free ambassadors last year, only to find out afterward it was linked to Scientology. "I was disappointed. In general we would not align ourselves with a group like that," he said.

The drug-free ambassadors programme was launched by one of Scientologist actor John Travolta, more than 10 years ago. In 2003, actor Tom Cruise donated $1500 to the Auckland branch.

- Sunday Star Times

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