New research using the psychedelic ibogaine to treat addiction has long history
Posted Oct 09, 2014
An article in the September 29 Journal of Psychopharmacology carried a report from Brazilian researchers that the naturally occurring psychedelic compound ibogaine, when administered by a physician in conjunction with psychotherapy, was surprisingly effective in treating a variety of drug addictions, resulting in prolonged periods of abstinence following just one or two treatments.
Ibogaine, illegal in most of the world, is legal in Brazil, and used there in clinics to treat addiction. The researchers from the Federal University of Sau Paulo evaluated 75 clinic patients with addictions to substances ranging from alcohol to crack cocaine and determined that the average period of abstinence after just one ibogaine session was nearly six months, and nearly nine months after a second session.
(The following is excerpted from my book: Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal.)
Ibogaine has been used in traditional healing for centuries in West Africa. Initiates in puberty rites who took the drug, a bitter white powder derived from a rain forest shrub, were said to enter into communication with “the universal ancestor” and emerge from the two-day experience transformed.
In 1962, in the Bronx, a nineteen-year-old heroin addict named Howard Lotsof was searching for an exotic high when he took some ibogaine he got from a chemist friend.
Lotsof, who died of liver cancer in 2010, told of his ibogaine experience in a 1994 New York Times story. More importantly, he described its effect: “The next thing I knew, I was straight.”
After taking the ibogaine, Lotsof spent most of a day in a dreamlike state featuring vivid hallucinations when he closed his eyes – almost like watching fantastic movie reels projected on the back of his eyelids – accompanied by a parade of memories embedded with insights into motivations and effects of past behavior.
When the drug faded after ten hours, he realized he hadn’t had any of the usual heroin withdrawal symptoms during his prolonged ibogaine intoxication. He also emerged with a new outlook. In his altered state, he had realized that he had always viewed the world fearfully and took heroine to dull the anxiety he constantly felt. The answer, and the ability to act on it, simply appeared to him: He didn’t have to be afraid, he didn’t need heroin.
From that moment, he said, he was a changed man, and drug free. One of his first acts in a life that would henceforth be devoted to promoting the anti-addiction promise of ibogaine was to persuade six addict buddies to take it. He claimed that five of the six immediately kicked their habits.
A professor of neurology and pharmacology at the University of Miami named Deborah Mash heard of Lotsof’s accounts and reacted skeptically. A chance discovery of a miracle drug coming not from a lab, but a junkie, seemed suspect on its face. But as Mash looked into an abundance of anecdotal reports and did lab research, she decided there was enough there to merit a rigorous scientific assessment of ibogaine. In lab analysis she discovered that a substance formed when the body’s chemistry breaks ibogaine down -- called noribogaine -- blocked the process that caused opiate withdrawal symptoms. It also appeared that the psychoactive properties of the drug gave addicts an introspective distance and insight into the root causes of their addiction, as well as a heightened motivation to break free of it. But she couldn’t find any institution willing to fund a study of such a controversial substance – classified on the same Schedule I level as LSD and heroin.
Mash persisted, eventually discovering an unlikely partner and an unconventional solution. The government of St. Kitts allowed her to do a clinical trial on the island and pay for it by charging the subjects – something that would not have been permitted in the US.
A South Carolina psychiatrist named Michael Mithoefer, who had been searching for more effective ways to treat a drug-addicted patient, heard of Mash’s work listening to NPR one evening on the way home from his office. When he called Mash the next morning, she gave him a very positive report on her clinical results, and its encouraging safety record, which was reassuring since he’d discovered that people using ibogaine occasionally died within twenty-four hours of administration. Some estimates put the risk of death when ibogaine has been administered to treat addiction at 1 in 300. Far from all the fatalities were attributable to the ibogaine itself, but the numbers were still scary.
Despite the risk and the unproven benefits, Michael’s patient, who felt her life wasn’t worth much as an addict, decided to fly to St. Kitts and take the treatment. She asked Michael to come with her.
Michael told her that as her psychiatrist, he couldn’t endorse the risky treatment, but that if she was intent on going and she understood his reservations, he’d agree to come “on my own dime” as an observer.
She said she understood and agreed to his conditions, so Michael went along.
In a sense, there wasn’t much to see, or at least, to listen to. “There’s no talking during an ibogaine session,” Michael says. “People are just laid out for a long time. The session lasts ten or twelve hours, and they’re not communicating at all, for the most part.”
The subjects appeared to be in the middle of a restful sleep, but internally, they were having intense experiences of the type Lotsof had described, often seeing the events of their lives pass as if for review, highlighting all the negative events and decisions that led to their addiction. Others had visions.
“One person there said that this fierce woman he referred to as ‘Mother Ibogaine’ came to him in his visions and said, “Stop that shit.” And he said, “Okay, whatever you say.”
Michael found that reports of a personified spirit issuing ultimatums were not uncommon, and they often proved effective.
“Mother Ibogaine," Michael noted, "seems to get people’s attention pretty well.”