Fighting Fire with Fire

The drug that ends addiction

by Giulio Brandi, staff writer; illustration by Claire Jencks, guest artist

The word “hallucinogenic” doesn’t do justice to the effects of ibogaine, a chemical derived from the Tabernanthe Iboga plant. The journey is far deeper, more dangerous, and certainly more useful than that time you ate brownies at a Phish concert and “felt really strange.”

Humans have been using consciousness-altering plants for millennia, so what’s the big deal with Iboga? Well, the average ibogaine-induced vision will lead you to relive every scene of your life where you felt you caused pain or harm to another person. Not only that, but you’ll re-experience the situation from your victim’s point of view, and bear witness to your own actions from what you perceive as their vantage point. You’ll feel the hurt that you caused and see yourself causing it. The experience is so intense that some people have died during the process, even after being given an amount that is well below the toxic level. The shamans most familiar with the plant say that the ones who die are those whose spirits couldn’t handle it. Many patients, including those who were initially unaware of the plant’s African origin, share visions of African spirits and entities.

Rather than being categorized as a hallucinogen, ibogaine is known as an entheogen (any substance, such as a plant or drug, taken to bring on a spiritual experience); its ritualistic use continues to this day, particularly in Western Africa among the Bwiti religion of Gabon. Small amounts are used as a stimulant and aphrodisiac, offering couples a form of medicinal counseling. Higher doses are used as an initiation into the religion and as a part of regular ceremonies. The Bwiti religion is so widespread in Gabon that their first elected president, Léon M’ba, was an initiate of the religion. Ibogaine is revered and respected in Western Africa for its healing power. In the United States, it remains obscure and illegal.

Outside of the somewhat mystical shared experiences of ibogaine lies the science behind the drug. The plant and chemical attracted the attention of American scientists in the 1960s, when research on consciousness-altering plants was as popular academically as the acid wave was socially. Howard Lotsof, who pioneered the research of the plant after experiencing its healing effects firsthand, noted ibogaine’s bizarre effect of rehabilitating serious opiate addicts almost immediately.  But, in 1969, just as scientists began exploring this potential avenue of use, the federal government declared the whole plant (not just the active chemical) illegal, along with LSD and Psilocybin mushrooms. Research and treatment basically stopped until the early 1990s. Heroin addicts periodically came into contact with the drug by chance.  After its effects wore off, many realized that they were cleansed of their habit.

In the past few years, underground hospitals have sprung up to help treat all forms of addiction. Ibogaine is most effective in treating those addicted to opiates, but it has also been helpful for methamphetamine users, cocaine or crack cocaine users, and alcoholics. Its success as a form of treatment is unparalleled compared to contemporary addiction treatment. Jeffery Kamlet, M.D., has been researching and working with Tabernanthe Iboga’s curative properties since the early 1990s, and is recognized as the world safety expert on the use of ibogaine as an “addiction interruptor.” As Former President of the Florida Society for Addiction Medicine, he has trained doctors around the world on how to administer ibogaine as a form of treatment.  He explained the procedure and effects: “It’s the equivalent of an addict being forced to sit in jail for ninety days.  In short,” Kamlet said, “it’s a one-shot detox. And it’s better than a ninety-day detox, as it isn’t followed by Post Acute Withdrawals, a condition that can manifest after breaking the cold-turkey stretch.”

The process from start to finish takes twenty-four hours. The patient is monitored by a nurse and a qualified doctor in an ICU environment. Because ibogaine is still considered an illegal substance in the USA, treatment generally takes place in Mexico, where it is legal for medical doctors to use any experimental or non-conventional treatment they deem necessary.  Those wishing to seek ibogaine treatment can meet with a doctor in the United States to be educated on the plant and its uses, and then make arrangements to visit a hospital in Mexico.

Results start to become clear the morning after treatment. Dr. Kamlet described the addict’s attitude and physical effects of the drug after the twenty-four-hour process: “The very next morning there is no kick, no withdrawal, and no cravings. The addicts gain tremendous insights as to why they use and it makes them receptive to new ways of learning and new insights to resolving their addiction.”

Some people are so astounded by their recovery that they publish accounts of their experiences in online forums and communities. One recovered patient mentioned how amazing it felt to have his appetite back. He said that, as a user who had been plagued by “junk sickness” for ten years, it was nothing short of a miracle to wake up craving bacon and eggs.

This doesn’t mean that ibogaine lets you go out, develop a habit, and then kick it in a day. Ibogaine is like a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to detox, but that’s where it ends. You come out of it clean, with no physical cravings for several weeks. But as the saying goes, “there’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem.” As a result, Dr. Kamlet is a firm believer in the Twelve-Step Program, as well as Narcotics Anonymous, since both teach former addicts how to live happily and honestly while overcoming the traumas that led them to use in the first place. Furthermore, the drug’s effectiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be available at the local pharmacy. It is a dangerous plant that contains toxic chemicals and it is easy to overdose; it should only be used under strict medical supervision.

Nonetheless, the decision to ban it outright in the United States may have been pre-emptive. Considering ibogaine’s effectiveness in treating addiction, as well as the fact that there are more than half a million people incarcerated in the United States on drug charges, isn’t it time that the government start to treat people rather than punish them? Government-regulated treatment of addiction often involves mandatory enrollment in a Twelve-Step or Narcotics Anonymous program following jail time. Without the proper detox and mindset, this treatment can seem laughable because it can be as unsuccessful as trying to quit on your own.  Both programs have recovery rates that float between one and five percent each year.

Dr. Kamlet explained that addicts can’t even sit still during the throes of junk sickness, so they can’t be expected to concentrate during a meeting in which they have no faith. Furthermore, the process of unscheduled testing does nothing to prevent use and is such an archaic method of rehabilitation that it borders on oppressive. Dr. Kamlet suggests that a realistic and informed order of treatment would include ibogaine treatment, followed by therapy.

So why isn’t this system in place? From an economic point of view, there is no pharmaceutical company that wants to encourage the legalization of a drug that you only take once. Fifteen of the twenty largest direct pharmaceutical contributions to politicians in the year 2000 went to members of the Republican Party, the same party that began the “War on Drugs.” (The largest contribution, $477,633, went to President Bush.) The fact that the very pharmaceutical companies that create new drugs every year are in favor of this war begs the question: With which drugs are we at war?

I was once told by a former addict that “there are two types of drugs: mental and physical.” Physical drugs are habit-forming, and open the possibility of addiction and abuse as your cells develop receptors to the chemical. To lump both the mental and physical into the general category of “drugs” is an oversimplification that demands further consideration. It doesn’t seem logical to place heroin, which leads to addiction, in the same legal category as ibogaine, a chemical that breaks this cycle. Why outlaw marijuana while we keep alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and prescription drugs legal?

In a society that condones potentially deadly drugs, it seems hypocritical to declare something illegal on the grounds of public safety. The epidemic of drug-based arrests and imprisonments calls attention to the fact that the Federal Government needs to reform its perception and laws regarding drugs and addiction treatment. The use of ibogaine has been legal for far longer than it has been illegal; the chemical ibogaine was first isolated from the Iboga plant in 1901.  Research into treatment began in 1962 and was outlawed in 1969. In Gabon, the plant has been used for thousands of years with no opposition or backlash. Until we reconsider the real reasons for this drug’s illegality, we may never find the right weapons, or justifications, for the War on Drugs.

Fighting Fire with Fire

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