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bwiti Tribe Iboga
Someone participating in a Bwiti ritual, taking the West African hallucinogenic bark derived from the Tabernanthe iboga plant

The African hallucinogenic that may cure US heroin addiction

We investigate Ibogaine, a ‘borderline magical’ drug found in a particular tree bark in Gabon – it’s said to have incredible powers to cure addiction but remains illegal across the US

On August 10, Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis in the US “a national emergency”. Yet a hallucinogenic drug, with properties that are said to borderline on magical for curing addiction, remains illegal in all fifty states of America. Why is Ibogaine being suppressed in the USA?

The Ibogaine story in the US stretches back to the 1960s, enveloping a procession of larger-than-life characters, from free-lovers to PHD neuroscientists. Today, overdoses now kill more people than car accidents in the USA; more, even, than guns, with 52,500 people losing their lives to an overdose in 2015, up nearly 40 percent from 2010. Roughly 33,000 of those recorded deaths were opioid related. These catastrophic numbers have led various groups, including The President’s Commission Combating Drug Addiction and the APA (American Psychiatric Association), to call for immediate government action.

Some people think it’s snake oil, they think it’s a lie” says Dana Beal, head of Ibogaine Alliance, speaking from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. "Yet more than a few recovering addicts, after taking Ibogaine only once, have stayed off drugs for the rest of their lives. How do you explain that?”

Ibogaine itself is a derivative of Iboga, a psychoactive indole alkaloid found in a particular tree-bark in Gabon, and has since been developed by scientists in laboratories around the world. However, in 1967 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) graded Ibogaine a schedule 1 drug in America; illegal to possess or even research.

“They think that Ibogaine is a mortal insult to methadone and other pharmaceuticals,” says Beal. “It’s all politics, which really sucks, because people are dying. One of the main reasons why the powers-that-be have suppressed it, quite simply, is that they don’t like psychedelic drugs.”

“It’s all politics, which really sucks, because people are dying. One of the main reasons why the powers-that-be have suppressed it, quite simply, is that they don’t like psychedelic drugs” – Dana Beal

A stimulant, hallucinogenic and a dysphoric, once consumed, the substance is known to interfere with a variety of human brain functions, activating powerful psychedelic experiences. Originally used in tribal ceremonies and initiations in West Africa, recovering addicts that have used Ibogaine have been known to undergo compelling introspective episodes.

“Before I found Ibogaine I’d been using heroin for sixteen years” explains Patrick Kroupa, former CEO of the famous MindVox Internet startup of the early 90’s. “I’d been in addiction treatment for six or seven of those years, and tried numerous methods to help my problem but nothing worked. Then I took Ibogaine and it was just, incredible. I’ve been clean for a long time at this point.”

Patrick speaks with all the passion and clarity you may expect from a man who’s been free from heroin since the year 2000. His transformation started almost immediately. “When the process starts you’re in withdrawal already, because whatever drug you’re addicted to needs to be out of your system. You take ibogaine and within 30 or 40 minutes all of the pain that you’ve been experiencing – physical and emotional – all of that just goes away. Then your journey begins.

“What you encounter is dependent on the individual. Some people have very profound spiritual experiences. Others have events from their lives play out in front of them. It provides a perspective shift, for whatever reason, and the part of your brain that’s been drug dependent is entirely altered.”

Ibogaine was first discovered in America by Howard Lotsof, a prominent figure in the counter-culture scene of the 1960s. He was part of the free-speech movement at Berkeley College in 1964 and was also, less ceremoniously, the first person to be arrested in the US for the conspiracy to sell LSD.

Yet backers of Ibogaine aren’t all new-age radicals. In 2005, Thomas Kingsley Brown, PHD, now Programme Coordinator at the University of San Diego, led a research project in Mexico testing the effects of Ibogaine on 30 heroin and opioid addicts. The results were impressive.

“You take ibogaine and within thirty or forty minutes all of the pain that you’ve been experiencing, physical and emotional, all of that just goes away. Then your journey begins” – Patrick Kroupa

“We confirmed that Ibogaine reduces withdrawal symptoms, helping high numbers of people get off opioids in the short term” states Brown. “But we were really interested in what was happening in the year after treatment.”

15 of the 30 subjects in Dr Brown’s study reported no opioid use after one month. At the three month period, the number was 10; a highly competitive figure when compared with other opioid dependence treatments.

“We had a number of people that stayed clean for the entire twelve months” says Brown. “For those that did relapse, the severity of the drug use was reduced drastically. There drug use was reduced to a point where they had control over there lives. They used a lesser amount of opioids, a lot less frequently.”

Brown continues to consider how good results might have been if his team could provide patients with an Ibogaine-specific, post-care plan. “People who get Ibogaine treatment, they’re going to Mexico, they’re going to Costa Rica, then they come home and there is no integration of care, because it’s a prohibited substance.”

What is perhaps more urgent to contemplate, is why Thomas Kingsley Brown’s paper received little, if any attention in the medical community upon publication. “The results go against people’s pre-conceptions, even if the evidence seems to be there,” he says. “They think psychedelic activity is a harmful secondary effect, not even considering that the psychedelic experience could be part of why the drug is working. Our conclusion was that most people in the medical community didn’t really want to endorse a paper containing positive results about Ibogaine.”

Yet Ibogaine is not without its dangers. The substance can be fatal when mixed with other drugs, notably opiates, while anyone with pre-existing heart defects is advised against using the treatment. But on balance, those dangers pale into insignificance when you consider that 80 people die per day in the USA from heroine and opioid overdoses.

“The whole thing is ideological” suggests Dana, the man who’s pushed the Ibogaine agenda for almost three decades. “They have a problem with the high itself. It could cut the overdoses in half here, there would be an enormous feeling of relief in this country. But for the status quo, it’s more important to win the argument on LSD, than to cure heroin addiction.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all model for fixing America’s heroin and opioid crises. For some addicts, methadone can lead the transition into a sober existence. For others, cold turkey is the answer. But in the face of a national emergency, it seems at best, unreasonable, at worst, ridiculous, to leave a potentially effective option off the table.

“Ibogaine is the single most effective drug detox that exists on planet earth that we are aware of” adds Dana, finally. “It seems logical to explore that, given the magnitude of the drug epidemic in the United States.”