Robert O. Young, a naturopath in California who ran a luxury medical clinic, was found guilty of two counts of practicing medicine without a license. While this news marks an end to the saga of Young’s spree of quackery and precarious trial, during which the jury was nearly hung and ordered by the judge to return to deliberations, it is important to note that Young was not found guilty on charges of grand theft. Young faces jail time but will not be held accountable for the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, that he took from patients as they believed the outrageous lies about his “pH Miracle Diet.”
Young was arrested in January 2014 after an undercover investigator with the California Medical Board revealed that he and other practitioners at his resort-like clinic were diagnosing diseases and providing dubious treatments to patients who were terminally ill with cancer or suffering from other serious conditions. Young does not have any medical training. He graduated from a now defunct diploma mill in Alabama named Clayton College of Natural Health, where he received “doctorate” degrees in naturopathy and biology. Based on this training, Young constructed an elaborate belief system around the notion that acidity in our blood is related to poor nutrition, which in turn causes cancer and health problems. By his logic, if acidic foods in the diet are replaced with alkaline foods, disease can be stopped in its tracks. If diet alone could not “alkalize” the blood, then it seems to have been necessary to give patients intravenous injections of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) allegedly to neutralize the body’s offending acids. Patients are reported to have spent over $2,000 per day to stay at his Rancho del Sol facility in Valley Center, California, and some paid out between $50,000 to $120,000. (He also operates a retreat in Como, Italy and “pH Miracle” cruises in the Caribbean.)
Young Almost Got off Scot-Free
California has a unique law that gives unlicensed practitioners of alternative medicine free rein to do as they please. SB577 passed in 2002 and was championed by the California Health Freedom Coalition which argued that Californians deserve the right to make informed choices about their health care options. That sounds reasonable, but really, the law is designed to allow woo-woo practitioners such as homeopaths, reiki masters, crystal healers, and Robert O. Young wanna-bes to advertise and provide their health “services” without fear of being prosecuted by the medical board for practicing without a license.
The codified premises of the California health freedom law make baby Jesus want to cry. Section 1a states that health care freedom is important because the National Institute of Medicine and New England Journal of Medicine find that complementary and alternative medicine is popular. This is one of the most common types of arguments used by advocates of complementary and alternative medicine. This line of reasoning is no different than saying that “treatment X is good because everyone does it,” also known as an appeal to popularity.
Section 1b gets even uglier. The law states that complementary and alternative health care practitioners have a proven track record of not causing harm to the public. I think a quick browse of Quackwatch.org at the time SB577 was being considered could have resolutely countered this flimsy claim. Here is but one example of a California woman who chose Gerson therapy instead of the standard treatments for breast cancer; she died in 1999. Here is yet another from 1997. How easily history is forgotten.
Finally, section 1c carves out the actual loophole in the California Medical Practice Act to protect practitioners with non-medical training from violating state law as long as they don’t provide services that require medical training. Here, the paragraph explicitly states that these providers “do not pose a known threat to the health and safety of California residents.” While SB577 does explicitly prohibit such practitioners from writing prescriptions, ordering X-rays, performing surgery and other reasonable restrictions, the law places the burden of defining what constitutes the practice of medicine on an unknown party with this clause declaring that alternative practitioners shall not:
Willfully diagnose and treat a physical or mental condition of any person under circumstances or conditions that cause or create risk of great bodily harm, serious physical or mental illness, or death.
If there is not a regulatory board to oversee these practitioners, who decides if their actions cause or create risk of great bodily harm? How can any practitioner who does not have medical training adequately assess the medical condition of a patient? The lack of clarity on this law and its opening up a dangerous loophole in the regulation of medicine in California are really disappointing.
Young’s lawyers must have leveraged SB577 to argue that he was merely practicing within the scope of his training from his prestigious alma mater. Given that California’s health freedom law is written so broadly and without any oversight, it is surprising that Young was convicted. Perhaps solid evidence for the act of injecting patients with intravenous preparations convinced the jury to find Young guilty of practicing medicine, as injections are clearly a medical act. In fact, SB577 specifies that any procedure that “punctures the skin” constitutes a medical act. The prosecution got this one.
Interestingly, the effectiveness of intravenous baking soda as a cancer treatment is irrelevant to the argument that Young simply performed a medical act in violation of SB577. I am under the impression that the jury would have found him guilty of grand theft if there had been a compelling impeachment of his home-brew “New Biology” and abandonment of human dignity when he took large sums of money from patients in exchange for a useless treatment. The problem here, of course, is that a courtroom is a place where reliable expert witnesses have the same footing as pseudoscientific cranks. I find it hard to believe a dozen jurors would have similar levels of scientific understanding and critical thinking skills, not to mention a good number lacking basic concepts. A few jurors in Young’s trial reported that the two-week long deliberations were frustrating, probably from other jurors with woowoo affinities. Since Young treated cancer patients, I wonder if the prosecution characterized them as patients with a condition that poses the “risk of great bodily harm,” but I think this might be hard to do without demonstrating that baking soda ain’t going to cure cancer. I am under the impression that California’s poorly worded Health Freedom Act protected Young from additional convictions.
Though “health freedom” laws are creeping up in state legislatures around the U.S., I was not aware of SB577 until a few months ago. Oddly, I learned about the “quack protection law” from an exchange that Britt had with Dana Ullman on Twitter:
— Britt Marie Hermes (@NaturoDiaries) November 17, 2015
Licensed Naturopathic Practitioners are Protected in California
If Young were a licensed naturopath in California, his case would have never been investigated in the first place. California gives a broad scope of practice to its licensed naturopaths by granting them access to a limited number of drugs under physician supervision and allowing autonomous diagnosing and treating any kind of disease using naturopathic practices. (There is currently a naturopathic scope expansion bill, SB538, to add more controlled substances and minor surgery privileges, that has failed to pass a key committee and thus remains stalled.)
Currently, licensed naturopaths in California are legally allowed to administer the following substances, not including schedule III-V controlled substances under physician supervision:
Food, extracts of food, nutraceuticals, vitamins, amino acids, minerals, enzymes, botanicals and their extracts, botanical medicines, homeopathic medicines, all dietary supplements and nonprescription drugs
And they can use these routes of administration:
oral, nasal, auricular, ocular, rectal, vaginal, transdermal, intradermal, subcutaneous, intravenous, and intramuscular
Thus, if Robert O. Young had earned an ND degree from National University of Health Sciences or Bastyr University, he would be legally allowed to give intravenous injections of baking soda, a common mineral. He could advertise all sorts of nonsense about it too and remain within the confines of the California Naturopathic Doctors Act. Indeed, here is an example of one California naturopathic clinic advertising intravenous baking soda, plus a slew of other dubious treatments, such as high-dose vitamin C, homeopathy, and chelation therapy. In Arizona, it is even more hairy. Colleen Huber, a prominent naturopathic “oncologist” in Phoenix, is a big proponent of using intravenous baking soda to treat cancer. Her practice site and the site for the IRB she runs are good reads if you want to learn about a serious wrangler in the Wild West of Naturopathic Medicine. I cannot comprehend how she claims a 90% success rate in treating cancer.
How is what Robert O. Young did different from what Colleen Huber does? Does she know how to administer baking soda more competently because she went to Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine? I find it hard to believe that Huber is any more medically qualified than Young given that she seems to hand out a plethora of highly questionable cancer treatments and claims to be a qualified medical researcher wrapped up in incomprehensible descriptions of disease pathology.
As in Arizona, California’s licensed naturopaths operate in an environment where they can practice extremely dubious procedures that are frowned upon by the medical community for being ineffective and dangerous. One treatment stands out: intravenous ozone therapy. Ozone is not recognized by the FDA to be effective for any medical condition, and it is highly toxic and corrosive. Yet, several licensed naturopaths in California practice ozone therapy as claimed on their clinic websites. Here are a few examples:
- Synergy Natural Medicine Clinic, “At our Clinic, the most common reasons patients seek ozone therapy include:
- Immune Support – For a variable of immune system related health problems, including HIV and cancer [sic]
- Infections – Most infections, including surgically related infections and infections related to diabetic ulcers or other non-healing wounds
- Joint Pain – For treating a wide variety of joint pain including ligaments, tendons and the connective tissue around the joint
- Other Viruses – Including herpes and shingles. Ozone therapy has been shown to lessen the frequency and severity of HSV, shingles and other viruses
- Macular Degeneration – European studies have shown major improvements in macular degeneration in about 70% of cases.
- Liver Disease – For treating liver diseases such as hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.”
- Walnut Creek Naturopathic, “It is important to remember that although ozone is an extremely effective and crucial modality, it is only rarely effective by itself. To achieve significant healing results, it is important to combine this therapy with a complete naturopathic treatment plan.”
- Berkeley Naturopathic Medical Group, “After graduation from NCNM, Dr. Anne studied Nutrigenomics/MTHFR extensively, as well as pursuing further studies in classical homeopathy and certifying in Ozone therapies and as a Nutrition Specialist.”
Probably, to some dissenting jurors in the Robert O. Young trial, these naturopaths make ozone therapy seem like an established treatment that effectively treats a wide range of health conditions. To anyone who is reasonable, these naturopaths seem totally out of their league, as they exhibit a gross misunderstanding of medicine, research, and, yes, reality.
Interestingly, naturopaths who have practiced or continue to practice ozone therapy in California have broken state law. Ozone is a gas, which is not a substance permissible for administration listed in the California Naturopathic Doctors Act. I think it is unfortunate to wait until a patient is harmed from ozone gas at the hands of a licensed naturopath, as regulators are obligated to view ozone therapy as an incriminating act for California’s naturopaths.
Despite ozone being a substance out of the scope of practice for California NDs, the California Naturopathic Doctors Association encourages its members to take continuing education credits in ozone therapy. Not surprising for naturopaths who confuse sound training in medicine with nonsense, the CEs in ozone therapy are categorized as pharmacy credits. Below is a screenshot of the offending advertisement previously displayed on the state organization’s webpage and broadcasted to its members via email:
California has a problem with its licensed naturopaths. Despite there being clear evidence of California NDs using ozone therapy in their practices and professional endorsement of this illegal therapy, medical regulators have not been proactive in protecting the public. They should take immediate action, otherwise, it is a tragic disservice to Californians to let licensed naturopaths blatantly practice outside their legal scope of practice.
If the trial of Robert O. Young teaches California regulators and lawmakers anything it should be that alternative medicine practitioners are extremely questionable and require tight laws and oversight in order to protect the public. Some may see Young’s conviction on a limited number of charges as a success, but I agree with juror #10: “It wasn’t a satisfying conclusion.”
Young effectively stole millions of dollars from extremely vulnerable people, some who were living out their last days and desperate for a miracle. I think it is a fair request to ask California legislators to revisit the Health Freedom Act with advice from experts in public health policy and science-based medicine and, out of necessity, excluding lunatic charlatans. (If you watch this video below, try and find any 30 second segment where Young does not sound like a complete moron.)
Young’s conviction indicates that when clearly defined parameters of the law are broken by alternative health care practitioners, there can be sound legal recourse even if dwarfed by gross moral transgressions. Young was snagged on his sticking needles into patients’ bodies but not on grand theft. Had the Heath Freedom Law been written a bit differently, it may have been easier to demonstrate criminal activity that would be commensurate with his intent and actions.
Perhaps one day California’s licensed naturopaths will be taken to task for breaching their legal scope of practice when they inject toxic gas into patients’ veins. Given the way the California Naturopathic Doctors Act is written, this legal avenue seems like an obvious way to protect the public. Sadly, however, nothing in the law prevents California NDs from practicing a wide-range of other extremely questionable treatments, and no one should have the confidence that the state’s naturopathic board will act beyond the professional interests of its members. Until the laws are changed, Californians will continue to be vulnerable to exploitation by licensed naturopaths, who sometimes look no better than a “pH Miracle” maniac.