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"Cocaine, meth, nicotine, morphine — we did the same studies with 18-MC, and it worked as well or better than ibogaine," Glick says. "We also have data that it will be useful in treating obesity. In animals, it blocks their intake of sweet and fatty foods without affecting their nutrient intake."
Glick and his colleagues have yet to determine whether their synthetic ibogaine has psychedelic properties. The rats, after all, aren't talking.
"You look at an animal given ibogaine, and you can't tell if they're hallucinating. But they look positively strange," Glick says. "You give them 18-MC and you can't really tell. But we hope when it gets to people, it won't produce hallucinatory effects."
The first human testing of 18-MC is scheduled to begin later this month in Brazil. But scientists there won't be studying its effect on addiction. They'll be investigating the drug's potential as a cure for the parasitic infection leishmaniasis, an affliction similar to malaria that's common in tropical climates. Through pure coincidence, 18-MC is chemically similar to other drugs that are used to treat the disease.
The Americans jumped at the chance to test their product in South America. Although 18-MC has shown promise and no observable side effects in animals, not a single pharmaceutical company has shown interest in developing it as an anti-addiction product.
"We're fortunate we have this other disease apart from addiction, where we know it can be tested," says Kuehne, a veteran of big pharma, who worked for Ciba (a predecessor of Novartis). "Pharmaceutical companies don't like cures. Really, they don't — that's the sad thing. They like treatment. Something for cholesterol or high blood pressure that you [take] for years and years, every day. That's where the profit is."
Further complicating matters is the fact that 18-MC has proved difficult to manufacture. Obiter Research, a company based in Champaign, Ill., which specializes in synthesizing experimental chemicals, spent nearly two years refining the process before successfully creating about 200 grams of the substance — just enough to send to Brazil to be administered to human subjects.
"Imagine a Tinkertoy Ferris wheel," says Bill Boulanger, Obiter's CEO and a former chemistry professor at the University of Illinois. "It's like taking that apart, then trying to use half of the parts to build a fire engine. Ibogaine is a natural product, and sometimes Mother Nature does a better job than the lab."
The notion of hallucination-free ibogaine, however, rubs the drug's diehard supporters the wrong way.
"With methadone they just removed euphoria from opiates," says Dimitri Mugianis, a former heroin addict turned underground ibogaine-treatment provider. "This is the same process they're doing now — removing psychedelic and visionary experience. Ibogaine works. What are they trying to improve or fix? It's not broken, and they're spending great amount of time and money to fix it."
Mugianis kicked his habit with the help of ibogaine administered at Lotsof's clinic in the Netherlands. The experience was so extraordinary that Mugianis was inspired to travel to Gabon to be initiated into the native Bwiti religion and trained by local shamans. He says he has performed more than 400 ritualistic ceremonies on addicts, most of them in New York City hotel rooms, using ibogaine and iboga root bark.
Despite his strong belief in the power of ibogaine, Mugianis does not see it as a miracle cure for addiction. "The 12-step approach really helped in combination with ibogaine," he says. "I say it interrupts the physical dependency, because that's what it does. There's no cure. It's not a cure. It allows you a window of opportunity, particularly with opiate users."
Efforts are afoot to legalize — or at least legitimize — ibogaine in the United States. Convincing doctors and elected officials to support a potent, occasionally lethal hallucinogen can be a tough sell. That pitch becomes doubly difficult when some of the ibogaine enthusiasts themselves inspire skepticism.
One of ibogaine’s most outspoken advocates is Dana Beal. An eccentric character who helped found the Youth International Party (more commonly known as the Yippies) in the 1960s, Beal sports a bushy white mustache that inspired a New York Times reporter to liken him to “a Civil War-era cavalry colonel.” Beal travels the country giving PowerPoint presentations touting the benefits of ibogaine and medical marijuana.
In June 2008 he was arrested by police in Mattoon, Ill., and charged with money laundering. He was carrying $150,000 in cash in two duffel bags, money he claims was going to finance an ibogaine clinic and research center in Mexico. Beal maintains his innocence and is free on bail as the case heads to trial.
It’s folks like Beal, says pharmacologist Stanley Glick, who keep ibogaine and 18-MC from being embraced by the medical mainstream.
“Some of my colleagues, as well as funding agencies, lump us together without really considering the data,” Glick says. “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with ibogaine, some of it warranted, some of it unwarranted. It’s really a stigma. Drug abuse itself has a stigma, and unfortunately so does ibogaine. It has really hurt the science.”