By its own estimate, Foundation for a Drug Free World, an education non-profit, has visited at least 20 percent of New York City's schools, public and private. That's over 14,000 children, it says, mainly in disadvantaged schools in outer boroughs. Drug Free World has won accolades from the City Council and the state Senate and been featured by over a dozen local publications, including the Daily News.
But in two recent presentations witnessed by a City Limits reporter, the organization—which is connected to the Church of Scientology—presented information on the dangers of drug abuse that had little basis in fact and could be traced to the works of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
In a section of its website titled "How We Help," the Church of Scientology lays claim to Drug Free World and a slew of other nonprofits, including Narconon, a faith-based drug rehabilitation program. Though Drug Free World is a secular program, chapters in California and Pennsylvania have directed addicts to Narconon, whose rehab procedures are discredited by medical science.
There's no evidence that's been done by the New York chapter of Drug Free World, founded eight years ago by Meghan Fialkoff—a Scientologist from Bayside, Queens—after completing her undergraduate degree in public relations at the University of Maryland. With Fialkoff at the lead, Drug Free World has visited daycares, YMCAs, NYPD youth programs, homeless shelters, community fairs, and churches. The group posts the thank-you notes it receives from administrators on its website. Dating from early 2012 onward, there are hundreds.
Claims about flashbacks
Fialkoff, who denies the program's links to Scientology, declined to allow a reporter to attend a Drug Free World presentation. But during an interview, the group's photographer extended an invitation to a presentation at Little Flower, a Catholic after-school program for troubled teenagers in Queens.
There, in the vaulted stone rectory, Drug Free World's presenter David Tidman battled the Friday afternoon doldrums.
"You know mushrooms? They're a funny brand of plant. Some mushrooms are good in salad, like Portobello. Some mushrooms will give you hallucinations for hours. Some mushrooms will kill you in two hours flat, just like that."
"'Shrooms," a girl echoed, dreamily.
"They take they damn selves," another girl added, expressing her approval of the popular psychedelic. Both girls giggled.
Tidman is Drug Free World's lead presenter in New York City. He took a fatherly tone with the teens while explaining how all drugs, not just LSD, can cause flashbacks.
"A certain amount of that drug or medicine stays in your body for weeks, months, even years, and later on what happens is it can dislodge from the fat tissue and reactivate in your body," he said.
At odds with science
The concept of the human body storing lipid-soluble drugs for years comes from Clear Body, Clear Mind, a self-help book compiled from materials written by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. The book outlines a detoxification regimen used by a number of Scientology-funded groups, including Narconon. Drug Free World's materials make no mention of the flashback theory, or any Scientology for that matter, but Tidman used it in both presentations City Limits witnessed.
Dr. Amir Garakani, a psychopharmacology specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital, called Tidman's theory an overgeneralization: while LSD is linked to flashbacks, other drugs aren't. "There's no pharmacological basis for that. It's not accurate," he said.
While Drug Free World has multiple presenters, Tidman is its main man in New York City. He estimates he presented to 15,000 children last year, so many that he's forced to recycle near verbatim his jokes, analogies, and anecdotes. Take, for example, the evening of December 13, when Tidman visited the Parent Teacher Association at Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx.
"Some mushrooms are good in a salad," Tidman said. "Others will make you sick and give you hallucinations for hours. Some will kill you in a matter of hours."
And again, the fatty tissue theory.
"Ever notice how in the hottest part of summertime how people drive on the B.Q.E. [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway]? Or the Bruckner?" Drug flashbacks were responsible, he said.
The parents were boisterous and responsive. They laughed at his jokes. Afterward Tidman said he thought it went well, but Rosaline Torruella, the parent-teacher coordinator, disagreed. Whether Tidman knew it or not, he had been auditioning to the parents. Torruella said she decided there were too many inaccuracies for another invitation to be extended.
Links to the Church?
Tidman, a member of the Church of Scientology, is not paid for his presentations; he says he makes a living working for a dentist's office. The dentist is Bernard Fialkoff, Meghan Fialkoff's father, a high-ranking Scientologist who funds Drug Free World both out of pocket and through his study club of local doctors.
Fialkoff acknowledges that the New York City chapter of Drug Free World is run by Scientologists out of church headquarters in Times Square, yet denies that Drug Free World is a Scientology program. "There's a lot of sponsors for the program. One of them happens to be the Church of Scientology," she said. And if Tidman had deviated from the carefully secularized materials, that could be corrected, she added.
Through Bernard Fialkoff's dental study club, Drug Free World has solicited awards from State Senator José Peralta, as well as former Councilman Dan Halloran, who is now under indictment for corruption. Both issued proclamations honoring the organization. Neither official responded to requests for comment.
In at least one respect, Drug Free World's presentations resemble a visit from D.A.R.E. or many other anti-drug organizations: After the kids file out of the room, it's hard to tell whether the message stuck.
On the way out of Little Flower, Tidman recognized the difficulty in changing at-risk children's behavior over sporadic, hour-long visits.
"Once you're gone, many of the students don't even know you were there," he said.
Tidman said he wishes he could spend more time with smaller groups of children, but the organization is always pushing for more presentations in new places.
But most schools seem happy with what they get. In March 2014, Leydy Avila of Sunnyside Community Services in Queens wrote to the group, "As a Director, I strive to be able to provide an excellent program for my children that will be well-rounded for their needs. However, due to budget constraints as you can imagine it is often difficult to achieve this without sacrificing something. Having organizations and individuals like you […] and the flexibility to accommodate so many of my children was really appreciated."
When asked how he could measure the effectiveness of his program, Tidman doesn't have a ready answer. There is a follow-up mechanism called "Drug Free Marshals," where at the end of a presentation children—without providing contact information—signed a pledge that promised they will avoid drugs, encourage their friends to do the same, and seek more information on the website.
Fialkoff says she removed that element because it had a religious aspect that didn't belong in her secular program, but it is still sometimes used. At Lehman High School the parents and a few kids signed, though at Little Flower the forms stayed in the box.
The Foundation has responded to this article. Read their response here.