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Turn On, Meet God, Get Straight 

An African root bark may offer clues to addiction — if only it were legal to study

Thursday, Aug 21 2003
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Illustrations by Daniel Peacock

In 1962, a young junkie named Howard Lotsoff ordered iboga, a plant used in West African rituals, and tried it for extra kicks. After consuming the bitter root-bark powder, he experienced a visionary tour of his early memories. Thirty hours later, when the effects had subsided, he found that he had lost all craving for heroin, without withdrawal symptoms of any kind. He then gave it to seven other addicts, who were using either cocaine or heroin; five stopped taking drugs immediately afterward.

Thus were ibogaine’s anti-addictive properties discovered accidentally. A little more than two decades later, Lotsoff patented the ibogaine molecule for purposes of addiction treatment, but the FDA wouldn’t approve it; ibogaine was subsequently declared, along with LSD and a number of other psychedelic molecules, an illegal “Schedule 1” substance, with potential for abuse and no medical value. Despite the dedicated enthusiasm of a ragtag group of countercultural activists and leftover Yippies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discontinued research into the substance in 1995.

Now, suddenly, through a combination of anecdotal evidence, underground activism, journalism and scientific research, interest in ibogaine is approaching the proverbial tipping point: Articles have appeared in publications ranging from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to The Star. The JAMA piece, “Addiction Treatment Strives for Legitimacy,” describes ibogaine’s stalled and tortured path through the regulatory agencies, noting that the treatment’s frustrated supporters in the U.S. have set up an underground railroad to provide addicts access to the drug: “While unknowable scores of addicts continue ingesting ibogaine hydrochloride purified powder — or iboga whole-plant extract containing a dozen or more active alkaloids — few trained researchers witness the events.” The Star, unsurprisingly, takes a more colorful approach: An article headlined “Rare Root Has Celebs Buzzing” trumpeted the treatment as the hot ticket for “the numerous celebs who look for relief from their tough lives in the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a needle or prescription medicine.” The article insinuates that “some of our favorite A-listers” not only get cured but enjoy the hallucinations as an illicit “fringe benefit.”

Outside of the U.S., new clinics have opened in Mexico, Vancouver and Europe, offering reasonably priced and medically supervised opportunities to try ibogaine as a method of overcoming addiction. In fact, at one new Vancouver clinic, the treatment is free.

 

The Ibogaine Therapy House in Vancouver, British Columbia, opened last November. “So far, we have treated 14 people quite well,” says Marc Emery, the clinic’s founder as well as the head of the B.C. Marijuana Party. “They all say that their lives have improved.” Emery, nicknamed “the Prince of Pot,” is funding the free clinic with proceeds from his successful hemp-seed business. “Ibogaine stops the physical addiction without causing withdrawal, and it deals with the underlying psychological issues which lead to drug use.”

The Vancouver clinic currently has three full-time employees: two facilitators and one screener. Emery estimates that treatment for each patient costs around $1,500, which includes two administrations of the drug. “When I first found out about ibogaine, I felt that someone should be researching this, but the drug companies aren’t interested, because there is no commercial potential in this type of cure,” he says. Emery is deeply concerned about ambiguous studies on ibogaine’s toxicity. As the article in the JAMA noted, “One reviewer wrote that the drug’s toxicology profile was ‘less than ideal,’ with ‘bradycardia [an abnormally slow heartbeat] leading the list of worrisome adverse effects.’”

“From the masses of reports I’ve studied, a total of six people have died around the time they took ibogaine,” Emery says. “Some of them were in poor health, and some took other drugs at the time of their treatment. That doesn’t scare me off. I have a lot of confidence in ibogaine.” At this point, with little scientific study, the true toxicology of ibogaine is impossible to determine — the treatment is unlicensed in other countries and illegal in this one. Emery notes that the Ibogaine Therapy House screens for heart problems and other medical conditions that would contraindicate the treatment. His clinic also gives patients small daily doses of iboga for two weeks after their initial treatment. “Iboga tends to make anything bad for you taste really crappy. If possible, we want our patients to quit cigarettes at the same time. We think that cigarettes can lead people back to other addictions.”

 

Iboga is the sacred essence of the Bwiti religion of Gabon and Cameroon. Most members of the tribe ingest it just once in their lives, during an initiation ceremony in which massive amounts of the powdered bark are consumed. Through this ritual, each participant becomes a baanzi, one who has seen the other world. “Iboga brings about the visual, tactile and auditory certainty of the irrefutable existence of the beyond,” wrote the French chemist Robert Goutarel, who studied the Bwiti.

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