Derived from a West African root, Ibogaine may be a pain-free drug detox — but in the U.S. it’s highly illegal
They’ve given you the pills and now they’re checking your heart rate — it’s skyrocketing — when you see it in the corner of your eye. It could be a caterpillar, a cat, your first bicycle. It’s growing, and then there’s another — a lion? A tiger? A bear? — and soon that’s all you can see. It begins: a kind of “movie” of your life, things you didn’t know you remembered, drawn out from your mind like barbed wire. A comedy, maybe; a tragedy, definitely; and yours alone. It will stay this way for a good, long while.
But when it’s over — how long has it been? — things seem to fit a little better. The ache in your joints isn’t there. The migraine, the fever, all gone. And, grasping at the whatness of whatever it was that you saw, you realize that you never want to use again.
Ibogaine is the rumored “wonder drug” of addiction treatment. More effective than methadone at combating withdrawal symptoms, more potent than peyote. And very illegal.
Howard Lotsof, a lifelong advocate for Ibogaine legalization, says that the western world discovered the pharmacological properties of Tabernanthe iboga in the 19th century, though the root had probably been used in initiation ceremonies in West Africa for generations. The drug went ignored until 1962, when a group of heroin addicts discovered, following a nearly two-day Ibogaine “trip,” that they weren’t exhibiting withdrawal symptoms.
According to the Mexican Ibogaine Association, though molecularly most similar to anti-cancer drugs the drug works by remaining active in the body’s opiate receptors. These receptors, “stoked” during drug use, can cause a lot of pain for someone who quits an addictive drug cold turkey. Ibogaine effectively “distracts” opiate receptors until whatever healing — psychological and physical — can take place.
The medical establishment remains either ignorant or suspicious of Ibogaine. Those who have experienced the drug firsthand, facing the bull’s horns of criminal implication and social ostracism, don’t want to go on record. It takes me almost two weeks to make contact with a former Oxycontin addict now living in Port Angeles, who chose to speak to me as just Ryan.
By age 20, Ryan was spending nearly $200 a week on Oxycontin. After deciding to get clean, withdrawal gave him everything from pain in his joints to diarrhea to insomnia. Like every addict, he wanted to use again.
When a friend told him about Ibogaine, available in Mexico and Canada as an “experimental medication,” he decided he didn’t have much to lose.
“I don’t know how to describe it… it kind of hit a ‘reset’ button in my brain,” says Ryan, who received treatment near Tijuana. “When I got back to my old environment I just had less desire to use … and I wanted to stay sober.” He’s been Oxy-free since.
There are hundreds of accounts like Ryan’s out there — people who decide to get clean and escape through the window Ibogaine opens.
There are even a few in the medical field who have researched the drug. Though hesitant to call it a cure-all, clinical social worker Barbara Judd claimed at a meeting of the International Conference on Drug-Related Harm that her after-care group “did not appear to need self-help type assistance to reduce their drug urges,” also noting the drug’s ability to mitigate withdrawal.
But Judd’s study is one of very few, and the FDA, writes the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, is hesitant to invest money into researching a “controlled substance.” Unsurprisingly, more than a few are skeptical. As Ron Jackson of Evergreen Treatment Services put it, “There is not one shred of credible scientific evidence that [Ibogaine] is an effective intervention for any kind of drug addiction.”
The fact remains that Ibogaine is a potent psychedelic and has been linked to at least one death. Were the drug to become available to the public, people on both sides of the debate agree, it would need to be well regulated. Still, what’s clear is that Ibogaine has worked for some — and that it has gone almost completely unstudied by the medical community which speaks to the strange ironies of the drug problem itself.
“I don’t know if it’s for everyone,” says Ryan, “I just know it worked for me.”