“Several months in, he started telling me the place was a cult,” recalls Anne Mitchell, a Boulder attorney whose son was referred to Cornerstone by Denver Health’s STEP program.

Enthusiastic Sobriety programs like Cornerstone and FullCircle, which use a modified version of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps, aren’t the first sobriety programs to be discussed in terms of being a cult.

“I’ve been hearing from ex-members of 12-step programs for decades about how it’s a cult,” says Dr. Steven Hassan, a leading cult expert and the author of Combating Cult Mind Control. “I’ve also heard from people who said it saved their life and that they really credit it with saving their marriage. For me as a therapist, I just want people to be fulfilled and be able to work and have healthy relationships. … That said, when I first learned about the 12 steps and their Christian origins, and the notion that you’re powerless, and the notion that it’s a disease, struck me as off, badly. Especially the powerless thing, because that’s the exact opposite of my entire understanding of what becoming an adult is versus being a child forever, where you don’t have power. I believe people should grow up and be adults and have their own power.”

Last year, Hassan interviewed Dave Cherry, who ran Enthusiastic Sobriety programs in Missouri, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona during his time with the group. Cherry left Enthusiastic Sobriety in 1998, after enduring grueling hot seat sessions called “Purpose meetings” and at one point was ordered by Meehan to spend a week alone in the Arizona desert.

“Bob Meehan hung out with Charles Dederich,” mentions Cherry, halfway through the interview.

Dederich founded Synanon in 1958, and it was revolutionary at the time. Like Enthusiastic Sobriety, Synanon drew its counselors from members in recovery and hosted weekly social functions with engaging activities like live music. Therapy was centered around “the game,” a form of attack therapy, where members were encouraged to be completely honest and endure criticism from others in the circle. Originally, Synanon was a two-year program, but Dederich determined that members could never fully graduate because true recovery was impossible. Synanon morphed into an abusive, violent cult that engaged in kidnapping, 72-hour sessions of “the game” that Dederich admitted were brainwashing, and placing a live rattlesnake in the mailbox of lawyer Paul Morantz. Synanon collapsed under its legal and tax problems in 1991.

In 1970, the National Institute of Mental Health applied the Synanon program to prisoners at the Addiction Research Center — also called the Narcotic Farm — in Lexington, Kentucky. Early reports on the program, called Matrix, seemed promising. According to a 1971 report by Dr. Robert Weppner, “The Matrix member’s attitude is excellent — he is polite, enthusiastic, and quite motivated.” The Matrix program came to an end in 1973, amid allegations of torture and instances of sexual assault by the director, Jon Wildes.

In 1971, the Synanon model was applied to youth addiction treatment as part of a Florida program called The Seed. In 1974 it was the subject of a U.S. Senate investigation into behavior modification programs that noted, “Similar to the highly refined ‘brainwashing’ techniques employed by the North Koreans in the early 1950s, the method is used in the treatment of drug abusers.” The 1974 report found, “Behavior modification techniques employ intensive ‘encounter sessions’ in which individuals are required to participate in group therapy discussions where intensive pressure is often placed on the individuals to accept the attitudes of the group.” The Seed also required participants to live in foster homes as part of the program, noting on a grant application to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, “It has been evidenced that it is necessary to remove the client from his home environment as there might be existing problems that would prohibit normal progression during this phase of the program, and this procedure also eliminates any outside interference that might hamper the client’s progress.”

In 1976 Mel Sembler, a friend of the Bush family, along with former staff and board members of The Seed formed Straight, Inc., which incorporated many of Synanon and The Seed’s practices. First Lady Nancy Reagan declared Straight her favorite anti-drug program. Newcomers were marched around by the back of their pants and not allowed to speak during the first phase of the program. Youth spent over 12 hours a day in group therapy called “rap sessions,” where speakers were forced to confess past misdeeds to an audience of their peers who “motivated,” a kind of applause gesture that involved vigorously shaking their arms in the air, and responded to each speaker with “I love you.” The group was notorious for its abuses, settling $15 million in lawsuits alleging kidnapping, malpractice, negligence, statutory and licensing violations, false imprisonment, assault, and strict peanut butter and water diets, before dissolving in 1989. Straight became the Drug Free America Foundation in 1992, and now focuses on policy and research, as opposed to treatment.

Synanon, The Seed, and Straight are the progenitors of today’s troubled teen industry.

Straight, Inc. youth “motivating” during a “rap session.”

“I’m a survivor of institutional child abuse,” says Meg Appelgate, the CEO of Unsilenced, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness and support survivors of the troubled teen industry. “I was abducted at 15 and I spent the next three and a half years in two different facilities. One was in Idaho and the other was in northern Montana. I didn’t realize what I had been through until I was 33 and one of my Chrysalis sisters committed suicide, from the program. It caused me to look back at that and change the narrative a bit about what I thought I had been through.”

The troubled teen industry, the national network of private companies, nonprofits, and faith-based institutes that claim to cure teen addiction, mental health issues, or a host of harmful behaviors, is big business, according to Appelgate. “This is $23 billion in public funds a year that is going into this, that is coming in,” she says. “That’s not even counting the parents that are personally spending $5,000 to $30,000 a month to have their kid here and aren’t getting any kind of reimbursements from schools or any school system or anything like that. Then we add on the fact that now there’s insurance companies that pay for a lot of it, and we’ve got publicly traded companies with companies that are very large. We’ve got nonprofits who are extremely well funded and have a very good presence in D.C. on the Hill and are very interconnected with politics and everything. It is so incestuous that it’s very difficult to change, and then you add on top of that the fact that all of this started without any regulations, without any required reporting. Now we’ve got a system that is massive and $23 billion is going into it every year.” 

Emily, an Unsilenced volunteer and survivor of Georgia’s Enthusiastic Sobriety program Insight, who asked that we not print her last name, says parental anxiety over teen drug use is fueling the industry. “It’s an overreaction, particularly in upper middle class white communities, places where we don’t historically see what we call addiction,” she says. “I think there is a lot of overreaction of, ‘You’re going to ruin your life before it’s even started.’”

In Colorado’s Enthusiastic Sobriety programs, Douglas County and Cherry Creek youth are well-represented amongst FullCircle and Cornerstone’s clientele. “I wish there was a way to get better diversity,” admits Frank Szachta, Cornerstone’s owner and director, of their predominantly white program. “We’re not the most diverse state.”

Emily says much of what lands children in programs like Enthusiastic Sobriety, or Wilderness, or any of the dozens of youth addiction treatment programs nationally is normal teenage behavior. “We’re pathologizing all of these normal teenage independence-building behaviors that are risky,” she says. “Teenagers take risks. That’s their job. I wish we had better evidence-based prevention methods and things like that to keep people from getting addicted to drugs, but I don’t think sending kids who are smoking weed to two years of rehab is the answer.”

Bob Meehan, the founder of Enthusiastic Sobriety, would disagree. In Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, Meehan calls cannabis “the most dangerous chemical of all” and “the little sister to LSD — the ultimate mind bender.”

Meehan wasn’t alone. In 1981, James Hartz, Straight’s executive director, told the St. Petersburg Times, “A 14 year-old who did alcohol and pot and never got arrested, never skipped school — that person, in our opinion, needs to work through his or her relationship to that drug just as much as the person who is 16 and who was out [breaking and entering], ripping off and so on and so forth.”

Dr. Christian Thurstone, the director of Denver Health’s STEP program who Mitchell says referred her son to Cornerstone, is an ardent anti-marijuana activist.

Thurstone speaking at Colorado Christian University in 2017.

“These are these hardcore right-wing, anti-cannabis movement people that Frank [Szachta] got in with,” says Dave Larsen, the former director of Cornerstone, who left Enthusiastic Sobriety in 2003.

In 2013, Thurstone told Denver Westword, “It seems like people are doing more and more to get a deeper high and presenting to us more and more addiction to marijuana. I worry that might be a next step toward the injection of THC.”

Thurstone’s suggestion that cannabis users will begin injecting THC was derided as “idiotic” by Dr. Bob Melamede, a molecular biologist, biochemist, researcher, and supporter of medicinal cannabis.

According to the website for the Crossroads Program, Missouri’s Enthusiastic Sobriety group, Thurstone took part in a 2014 “Marijuana Educational Tour” with Think Again MO, an anti-cannabis legalization advocacy organization.

In 2017, Thurstone spoke about the dangers of cannabis at Colorado Christian University. “There is no known safe amount of marijuana use in pregnancy,” he said. “There is no known safe amount of marijuana use in adolescence. Thank goodness the vast majority of adolescents who use marijuana turn out just fine, but the rates psychosis and schizophrenia really start going up after 10 exposures to marijuana.”

Laura Stack, the founder of Johnny’s Ambassadors, a cannabis prevention nonprofit named after her son, who died from suicide in 2019, says high potency cannabis products are especially dangerous for young people. “In Colorado, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just weed,’” she says. “Nobody is really understanding how potent the THC products are. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the shatters and the waxes and the dabs. The vapes are 80% THC, edibles. The new products that are out there are not the three to five percent THC we used to smoke when we were kids. It isn’t ‘the grass.’ These are all manufactured, very high potency products, and it’s causing more addiction, more mental illness, more psychosis. Sadly, in the case of my son, which is why we started our nonprofit, he thought the mob was after him, and sadly, suicide is the number one cause of death in youth in Colorado under 24, and the number one substance found in their toxicology is THC.” 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that studies have shown cannabis use can have a negative impact on brain development, such as IQ loss and cognitive decline. Several studies have shown connections between cannabis and psychosis, but they don’t prove causality. Psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar are complicated, and the result of a combination of physical, genetic, psychological and environmental factors.

Stack says programs like Enthusiastic Sobriety help fill a gap for parents concerned about teen cannabis use. “There aren’t enough treatment programs,” she says. “My son went to one program, a group program at Sandstone, and he was made fun of. They were like, ‘Oh, you’re just addicted to marijuana.’ They were addicted to meth and heroin and cocaine, so he was mocked for being weak-minded. There just aren’t very many programs out there to help young people.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 9% of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it, rising to about 17% in those who start using in their teens. Research also shows that overall, teen cannabis use is on the decline. According to a 2019 report in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, “From 2002-2016, the prevalence of [cannabis use disorder] among people reporting daily/almost daily cannabis use decreased by 26.8% in adolescents, by 29.7% in ages 18-25, and by 37.5% in ages 26 + . Prevalence of DSM-IV cannabis dependence decreased significantly among adolescents (-43.9%) and young adults (-26.8%) but remained stable in adults 26+. Reductions in most dependence items were observed in young adults, with less consistent patterns in adolescents and adults 26+. Prevalence of DSM-IV cannabis abuse decreased overall and for each abuse item across all age groups.”

According to data from the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, teen cannabis use declined 35% between 2020 and 2021.

“It’s not evidence-based at all,” says Appelgate of the troubled teen industry. “These people saw an opportunity to market off of adolescence, and how scared parents were, and how willing they were to help their kids no matter what. They use fear-mongering and deceptive marketing to get them to do it. … If you look at drug use, if you don’t do anything about it when they start, when they’re 16, 17 — in their teens — by the time they get jobs, after college, and they enter the workforce, [drug use] naturally drops down, and that’s without going to treatment, without any of that stuff. The vast majority of people who are smoking weed in high school aren’t going to end up as drug addicts.”

Thurstone declined the Colorado Times Recorder’s request for an interview.

Isabel Lanzetta contributed to this reporting.

This is part three of a multi-part series on Enthusiastic Sobriety and youth addiction treatment in Colorado. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part four here. Read part five here.