Armed With Vitamins, And Now A Gun -- Fda Foe Becomes A Folk Hero

KENT - Dr. Jonathan Wright calls himself a "New Age" physician. He's a vegetarian and follower of Taoism who believes medicine should "imitate nature to promote healing," which is why he almost always prescribes vitamins, minerals and "a dose of kindness" instead of drugs or surgery.

But when he's not gardening or reading about herbs, the 50-year-old Wright has taken to carrying a gun.

It's a necessary evil, he says, to protect himself from the government, which he believes may attempt to break into his home at any time.

"It wasn't always like this, that people were scared of their own government," Wright said. "That's why they're going out to join militias. The militia movement is really not that crazy. It may be paranoid, but I think people have good reason to be paranoid."

That Wright, an internationally known nutritional healer, now has a concealed-weapons permit is one of many unexpected consequences of a government raid three years ago on the naturopathic Tahoma Clinic, which Wright founded in 1971.

Using evidence compiled by sifting through the clinic's trash bin for eight months, officers of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration forced open the clinic doors the morning of May 6, 1992. Accompanied by armed police officers in flak jackets, they seized $100,000 worth of medicine and equipment and publicly accused Wright of smuggling German-manufactured liquid vitamins and peddling bogus medical cures.

Among the items taken and never returned were injectable vitamins, minerals such as selenium and zinc, testosterone, glandular extracts, photocopies of patient records and three devices that measure the electromagnetic energy of the body, ostensibly to test people for allergies but which the government says don't work.

The raid attracted attention worldwide and instantly became the flashpoint in a struggle between conventional medicine and the followers of alternative healing, many of whom say their health care practices, no matter how arcane, are a private matter between doctor and patient and not subject to government review.

Within 24 hours, more than 2,000 letters denouncing the government's action were faxed to the White House, some from as far away as London and Brazil. Wright debated with FDA officials on ABC's "Good Morning America" and CNN's "Larry King Live." He was in such demand he later had to limit his speeches and public appearances to three per month.

Defenders of Wright eventually raised $250,000 for his legal-defense fund and launched a public-relations campaign against the government. It featured a television commercial in which actor Mel Gibson, clutching a bottle of vitamins, is hauled from his home by jack-booted agents.

FDA officials were just as emphatic that the agency was trying to protect Wright's patients. Two days after the raid, an FDA official posed with thumb-sized bottles of "moldy" magnesium fluid obtained from a trash can outside the clinic that he said "can kill you" if injected.

"The search uncovered the illegal and dangerous products that the FDA and sheriffs believed were present at the clinic," said FDA Commissioner David Kessler in a 1992 letter responding to questions about the raid from The New York Times.

But despite these promises of damning evidence against the vitamin doctor, Wright has not been charged with any crime.

Publicly, the FDA will only say Wright still is under investigation, for at least the fifth consecutive year. Wright claims an FDA official was spotted roaming around a construction project at his offices as recently as March. The FDA won't comment on any aspect of the inquiry.

Privately, Wright's attorneys and government officials say a settlement is being reached in the case, though Wright insists he will never agree to anything that limits his "ability to help patients."

True to his word, the clinic continues to use virtually all the methods and medicines the government contends are bogus or unapproved, including four new allergy-testing machines similar to those seized three years ago.

Wright also is proud to show off an ozone generator - a machine that creates a toxic form of oxygen gas used to kill fungal and viral infections. The FDA says the machine is unapproved, dangerous and has caused at least three deaths elsewhere when patients received extreme doses.

Wright contends ozone may even help destroy the virus that causes AIDS. He's willing to use it in "safe doses" to treat HIV-infected patients, though the government considers the treatment questionable.

He knows he's breaking the law. When asked whether this bothers him or his patients, Wright is defiant - and invokes the names of legendary practitioners of civil disobedience.

"Rosa Parks was also breaking the law" when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, "but it needed to be done," Wright said. "If it's a safe and effective medical procedure, then it should be done regardless of whether it breaks the law.

"If we're such a danger to the public, then what's taking them so long? They spent 14 hours in here - they've seen everything we've got to see. Which is it: Am I officially a good guy or officially a bad guy?"

His patients appear to have answered that question for themselves. The clinic is so popular, it expanded to new offices in downtown Kent this spring and may hire a third doctor to help handle the demand.

More than 5,000 patients come to the clinic from almost all 50 states and several foreign countries. Appointments are booked more than three months in advance. Clinic staff say they dispense advice to as many as 500 phone callers a day, people seeking alternative cures for every malady imaginable, from infertility to acne to knee pain to diabetes.

On one recent day, Wright saw eight patients, two of them from Ohio, one from Kentucky and one from California. Many patients visit once or twice a week to recline in lounge chairs in the clinic's largest room, where they are injected with solutions often containing huge doses of vitamins and minerals.

To them, the government's failure thus far to prove Wright is either a fraud or a public health threat has only enhanced the doctor's reputation. His treatments work, they say, and what more evidence is needed?

"The raid made me doubt my government, not Dr. Wright," said Warren Metzger, a Kent man who claims Wright eased the pain of a World War II injury by prescribing a vitamin and mineral mixture and getting him to change his diet.

"He believes very strongly in keeping drugs and other unnatural substances out of your body, as much as possible," Metzger said. "It just makes sense."

Naturopathic cures may sound sensible and may work in some cases, but much of the medical community believes Wright's brand of healing is as rooted in faith as it is in science.

"More a cult guru than a doctor"

"He's more a cult guru than he is a doctor," said Victor Herbert, a physician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York who last year co-authored an anti-alternative-medicine book entitled "The Vitamin Pushers."

"There's no evidence that most of his cures are any more than placebos," said Herbert, bristling at the notion that Wright is more sought after now than ever before. "If it works, it's only via the power of suggestion. That's true of all cults."

Megadosing on vitamins and minerals may help prevent the onset of sickness, but researchers say there are only isolated, unsupported studies showing that the practice can cure an established disease.

Two years ago, a group of Harvard researchers discovered that high doses of vitamin A can slow eyesight loss associated with retinitis pigmentosa, or RP.

The late Nobel laureate Linus Pauling was famous for taking massive doses of vitamin C, 300 times the recommended daily allowance each day, which he said could help prevent everything from the common cold to cancer. He died of prostate cancer last August at age 93, though he claimed vitamin C delayed the illness by 20 years.

Other studies have suggested some forms of vitamin B can reduce pain caused by carpal-tunnel syndrome, vitamin E can reduce risk of heart disease, and other minerals and plant extracts can allay depression, morning sickness and a host of other ailments.

The problem, researchers say, is that some naturopathic doctors such as Wright prescribe large doses of vitamins and minerals without really knowing how or why they work, if they work at all.

"The difference between vitamins and conventional drugs is we have a lot of knowledge about conventional drugs," said Gary Elmer, a University of Washington professor of medicinal chemistry who researches nutritional cures. "Naturopathic physicians make a lot of claims on the basis of limited evidence, and then they rail against the government for objecting.

"They need to be scientists and do some studies," said Elmer, though he acknowledged there's rarely financial support for clinical trials involving vitamins and minerals. "Without better proof, the alternative-medicine industry becomes a crusade that has nothing to do with science."

If it's a crusade, this one appears to have undeniable appeal. A recent study by The New England Journal of Medicine found that one-third of all American adults use unconventional therapies, from herbal medicine to hypnosis to acupuncture, and that the vast majority pay for the procedures themselves and don't bother to tell their regular doctor.

"There's an explosion of interest in the kind of medicine Dr. Wright practices, and he's one of the best anywhere," said Dr. Joe Pizzorno, president of Bastyr University in Seattle, one of three natural-healing schools in the nation.

"People are recognizing that, for all its miracles, modern conventional medicine has some severe limitations."

Wright, who graduated from Harvard at age 20 and earned his medical degree from the University of Michigan at 24, says a survey in his office showed his patients have seen six to seven doctors on average before they reach him. Many are stressed, depressed and "strung out" on prescription drugs, he said.

And though many doctors feel Wright is on the fringe even of alternative medicine, he has acquired backing from an eclectic group of political leaders, including Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

"The FDA can't go before Congress without hearing hard questions about what they did to Jonathan Wright," said Jonathan Emord, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents the alternative-medicine industry.

Lobbied by Wright and other alternative-medicine leaders, Congress last year passed a law clarifying that the FDA shouldn't try to regulate vitamins and minerals with the same stringency it requires for synthetic drugs.

For Wright, a constant slate of speeches, interviews and appearances has only recently begun to dissipate since government agents forced open his office door that May morning three years ago.

He laughs, remembering that at first he worried the raid would damage his reputation. He's well aware now, he says, that it was the raid that thrust him to the forefront of alternative medicine's fight for legitimacy. The FDA's strong-arm tactics may have done more for naturopathy than anything he has ever said or done, he says.

But ultimately, alternative medicine will flourish regardless of what happens in his own battles with the federal government, Wright says.

"It's because it works; it's as simple as that. We may not always understand why or how it works, but the tremendous public groundswell for natural medicine is because people know their own bodies, and they know that it works."