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February 27, 2013

Legislation affecting Narconon Arrowhead passes Senate

McALESTER — Legislation allowing Oklahoma’s mental health agency to certify recovery centers such as Narconon Arrowhead was unanimously passed by the Oklahoma Senate this week.

Narconon Arrowhead is a non-profit drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Canadian.

Last August, after several deaths and lawsuits at Narconon Arrowhead, Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, said he would work with officials at Oklahoma’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to author legislation aimed at “regulating questionable practices” at the facility.

An investigation of the Narconon Arrowhead organization was prompted by the July 19 death of Stacy Dawn Murphy, 20, of Owasso, by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Pittsburg County Sheriff's Office and the mental health department. The investigation later expanded to include three other deaths, those of Hillary Holten, 21, who was found dead at Narconon Arrowhead in April; Gabriel Graves, 32, who died at the facility in October, and  Kaysie Dianne Werninck, 28, who died in 2009 while she was a patient of the facility. Werninck was not at the Arrowhead facility a the time of her death.

District 7 State Sen. Larry Boggs said he voted for the bill Tuesday.

“I think over all the bill is a good one, but it will need some oversight,” said the legislator, whose district includes McAlester and the area in which Narconon Arrowhead is located, near Canadian.

“I think we came as close as we can for the people it will affect.”

In November, Murphy’s autopsy report revealed that she had died of an accidental overdose.

With that information, the investigation was handed over to District 18 District Attorney Farley Ward who has said he will a make the decision about whether criminal charges would be filed in connection the deaths. Several phone calls to Ward’s cell phone Friday and Saturday were not returned.

Meanwhile, in January, Sen. Ivester introduced Senate Bill 295 which broadens the scope of what the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services can do. Currently Narconon Arrowhead does not have to be certified under the agency. If it becomes law, Sen. Ivester’s bill would amend the current law so that the ODMHSSA could also certify recovery centers such as Narconon.

Meanwhile, back in August soon after Murphy was found dead at the facility, Ivester said he believed the state could impose strict regulations of “unorthodox drug treatment programs, like the one being run at Narconon Arrowhead that requires patients to endure five hours of extreme heat in a sauna and taking questionable doses of the vitamin Niacin.”

Ivester said, “There are proven treatment regimens to help people deal with the illness of addiction and we have a duty to ensure that programs being offered within the borders of Oklahoma are strongly regulated to ensure the utmost safety for these vulnerable patients and their families.”

The legislation must now be passed by the House of Representative before it becomes law.

Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester, said he hasn’t read the legislation yet and couldn’t say how he will vote on it. He did said Narconon is going through the process of certification to become approved by the state mental health board.

“I have talked to Sen. Ivester about the bill and I feel (the bill) would be redundant,” Renegar said. “By the time it becomes law, Narconon will be approved by the board.”

He also said he felt that Narconon was taking steps to change its policies. And, since the deaths at the facility, he said a close family member of his has used the Narconon program.

District 18 State Rep. Donnie Condit. D-McAlester, said he is all for making drug rehab facilities safer.

“If I had to vote on the bill today,” Condit said, “I would vote for it.”

Contact Jeanne LeFlore at jleflore@mcalesternews.com.

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