Four years before her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York state praised the work of Foundation for a Drug-Free World, an anti-drug nonprofit bank-rolled by the Church of Scientology that peddles abstinence-only drug education.
In November 2015, Senator Gillibrand addressed attendees to the Foundation’s annual Drug Free Hero Awards Gala, writing in a letter (see below) that she was “grateful” for their work to create a “healthy, drug-free, society.” Referencing the Foundation’s notoriously-misinformed “The Truth About Drugs” campaign, Sen. Gillibrand stated that “The growth of your programming ensures that youths across our country are educated and empowered to lead a drug-free life.”
The Truth About Drugs education program aims to “provide the facts that empower youth to choose not to take drugs in the first place.” Claiming to be providing “factual information about drugs,” the materials peddle debunked rhetoric. For example, the cannabis pamphlet claims that “marijuana smokers have poorer memories and mental aptitude than do non-users,” but the author of the study that’s frequently attributed for this claim has walked back the finding that cannabis use is associated with cognitive ability and IQ.
When asked whether the Foundation recognizes the legitimacy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and its classification of substance use disorders, Meghan Fialkoff, the executive director of the Foundation for a Drug-Free World of the Americas, told Filter that they have “no position,” adding that “We do not get into psychiatric or medical situations in our materials. We do not discuss kids / teens medical conditions or psychiatric conditions” and that “Anything regarding the DSM or substance abuse disorder or these things is not in the realm of our work.”
For Fialkoff, discussing substance use disorders, as well as harm reduction, “falls over into the realm of political discussion, think tanks, etc. We do not get into these subjects.”
The Foundation claims that it is secular, not influenced by the Scientology belief-system and grounded in facts. But some public schools are skeptical. Foundation-supplied materials were pulled from Santa Monica schools upon the discovery of Scientology links, and booted in San Francisco after medical examiners and the state Department of Education determined that the Foundation was promoting “bogus science,” according to The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2015, the same year that Sen. Gillibrand commended the Foundation, DNAinfo reported that the Foundation was implementing its programs in New York City public schools. The Department of Education denied the claim, even though the Foundation had posted photos to Facebook that seemed to confirm it.
Hailed by the Church of Scientology as “one of the world’s largest nongovernmental drug education and prevention initiatives,” the campaign claims to have distributed more than 62 million educational booklets and screened public service-announcements for 260 million viewers in 123 countries.
Fialkoff explains that Sen. Gillibrand “provided an acknowledgement for our good works” because “we focus on drug education and prevention, which is part of drug policy planning.” For her, Gillibrand’s implicit endorsement of the Foundation is logical: “All government officials know that drug policy measures include drug education and prevention, so all government officials, whether supporting change in policy or not, would support works like ours since we focus only [on] drug education and prevention.”
Although Fialkoff emphasizes that the Foundation is in the business of prevention education, it mostly seems to work with law enforcement, which tends to be reactive to drug use. The Church of Scientology boasts that the educational campaign is at the heart of some law enforcement’s approach to youth education, with over 400 law enforcement agencies having used The Truth About Drugs materials.
According to the Church, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department reported that its officers have been trained “in the use of this unparalleled program” and the New York Police Department utilizes the educational materials, with one officer describing the Foundation as providing “a wonderful service in guiding children in the right direction to turn away from drugs.” In May 2019, the National Latino Officers Association spoke in support of the Foundation’s work at a United Nations convention organized by the Foundation.
Continuing its work with police stationed in schools, otherwise known as school resource officers, the Foundation hosted stands alongside the Church of Scientology at the June 2019 National Association of School Resource Officers Convention.
The Drug-Free Tennessee’s table at the National Association of School Resource Officers Convention on International Day Against Drug Abuse. Source: Newswire
The “drug-free world” rhetoric supported by Gillibrand is similarly used by conservative politicians like President Donald Trump, who has publicly expressed that executions of people who sell drugs would be “incredible,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has maintained the country’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy for drug use, even for World Health Organization-endorsed opioid substitution therapy.
Sen. Gillibrand’s legislative work around drug use has most recently involved securing funding for three prevention and treatment organizations in New York state to address the “opioid epidemic.” In April 2019, Gillibrand, along with fellow Foundation-supporter Senator Chuck Schumacher, introduced legislation that would limit opioid prescriptions. She has also signed onto Senator Corey Booker’s progressive Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substance Act.
Gillibrand’s 2015 letter is the “the totality of the relationship” between the senator and the Foundation, Fialkoff told Filter.
Sen. Gillibrand’s office did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.
Graphic by FILTER, Using Photograph of Kirsten Gillibrand by Senate Democrats via Wikimedia Commons and Background Image from Foundation for a Drug-Free World