The last time that I was in detox, a heroin addict arrived the day after I did and was in terrible shape. When he was feeling a little bit better after a couple of days, we started getting to know each other. In talking about our experiences he told me something intriguing. During a previous attempt at recovery, he had felt too weak and unable to seek traditional treatment. He didn’t have the strength to face withdrawals but was desperate to get clean and previous stints in rehab hadn’t helped. Feeling trapped, he decided to go to a clinic in Mexico and try an unconventional method for kicking heroin. While there he was given a very powerful hallucinogen that was meant to get him through withdrawals and eliminate his cravings. After taking the medication and having an intense hallucinogenic trip for two days he said that was exactly what happened. What he was given was ibogaine.
Ibogaine is a psychoactive alkaloid found in the root bark of the iboga plant that grows naturally in Gabon, Africa. In small doses it produces a stimulant effect and in larger doses, a psychedelic one. The iboga plant is used in Bwiti spiritual practices amongst different tribes of Gabon. The ibogaine chemical was first isolated in 1901. From the 1930s through the 1960’s it was marketed in France under the name Lambarène as a stimulant. Ibogaine was made illegal both there and in the U.S. in the late ’60s.
A man named Howard Lotsof is said to have been the first person to recognize the potential of ibogaine to help curb addiction. He was a heroin addict living in New York City and after trying it out of curiosity he realized that his drug cravings were gone. Lotsof began giving his addict friends ibogaine to help them quit and went on to spend the rest of his life advocating its use for the treatment of addiction. At different points in his career, he contracted a Belgian company to produce it in pill form, got FDA approval to conduct a clinical trial with ibogaine, and even received a patent to use it to treat cocaine and heroin addiction. Lotsof was the founder of the Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to ibogaine research, education, and advocacy.
Ibogaine is still illegal in the U.S. It is listed as a Schedule I drug which means that it has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. In some countries, like Australia and Canada, ibogaine is in a gray legal area. There are many countries across the world where it is legal or unregulated; just a few include Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Brazil. Mexico and Costa Rica are popular places for Americans to seek ibogaine treatment because of their proximity to the U.S. In addition to legal clinics in other nations there are illegal ones here.
Unlike some other hallucinogenic drugs, ibogaine is physically dangerous and can be fatal when not used properly. It affects the electricity and functioning of the heart and can drop its rate to unsafe levels. Serious complications can also arise from preexisting conditions like Hepatitis C or when other drugs are still in a person’s system. Experts recommend patients at an ibogaine clinic should undergo a thorough health prescreening and preparation period. While ibogaine has been shown to help with heroin withdrawals, it can react badly if someone still has benzodiazepines in their systems. It is recommended that anyone thinking about ibogaine treatment do extensive research and choose a reputable clinic.
While doing research for this blog I came across a great 11-part article, for which the author spoke with heroin addict ibogaine users, traditional practitioners, researchers, and medical professionals who have overseen hundreds of ibogaine treatments. A few things stood out to me.
First, there is a misconception that it is a cure for addiction. It helps with withdrawals and cravings but it is not a solution in and of itself.
Secondly, it is like other kinds of treatment, ibogaine does not work for everyone. The drug has positive results with a lot of people but many relapse.
Lastly, the issue of safety. Clare Wilkins has overseen over 700 ibogaine treatments and she said that asking if ibogaine is safe is like asking if electricity is safe. I thought that was a great way to describe it. Electricity can safely illuminate homes and power smartphones and televisions but you don’t want to stick a fork in a light socket or plug in a hairdryer and bring it into the bath with you. Protocols have been developed for safe ibogaine administration based on research and experience.
Scientists don’t know why ibogaine works the way it does, why it is able to eliminate withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Thomas Kingsley Brown conducted a study using opioid addicts that was published in 2017. Most of the study subjects were able to quit opioids for a period of time, several weeks or months. For those who began using again, they used less than they were previously. What he also discovered was that the relationships the subjects had with people close to them improved. There is an interesting Ted Talk where Brown discusses some of his findings.
Beyond the matter of withdrawals and cravings is the psychedelic “trip” part of an ibogaine experience. Users say that they experienced a profound clarity and introspection into their lives as addicts. Deep emotions of guilt and shame, unlooked at and hidden feelings from abuse and trauma were brought to the surface. They were able to see where their addiction stemmed from and what it had been doing to their lives and to the lives of those around them.
I used to think that I got hooked on drugs because I just liked to party and got carried away like addiction was an accidental byproduct of that. With some time clean I have been able to see that I didn’t just enjoy the social aspect of partying, it was an escape. An escape from my insecurities and anxiety. I couldn’t enjoy the social part without being loaded because I was so uncomfortable with myself. I can see that now but seeing and understanding those internal problems aren’t enough to stay clean, now I have to do something about them. If I don’t, then there is not much in the way of me and active addiction again.
Nobody likes to look at the things that they dislike about themselves. Those are some of the hardest things to face in life. That is especially true for addicts who generally have a lot of guilt and shame over the way that they have lived their lives on top of the existing self-loathing. Quitting drugs is just the beginning of recovery. Many addicts are able to get clean but far fewer are able to stay clean and work through their personal difficulties.
In my research, everyone who was interviewed on ibogaine stressed the importance of a recovery program beyond the treatment. Therapy, rehab, 12-step programs; whatever that looks like for the individual. These people either experienced or saw through others that ibogaine was able to kick-start recovery but that it was not a cure for addiction or the answer to all of one’s problems. Anyone considering ibogaine treatment should keep that in the forefront of their mind. My friend from detox talked about that. His treatment helped him out enormously but he hadn’t kept up a program of recovery afterward and eventually, he relapsed.
I would like to see more research done on ibogaine, it seems to have enormous potential for addiction treatment. It has been shown to help with some big hurdles in getting into recovery: getting through withdrawals, reducing cravings, and helping to improve self-awareness and understanding of one’s own addiction. Unfortunately, there is a stigma in society against using hallucinogens as medicine and I’m not sure why. Native cultures have been using them for centuries. Extremely addictive drugs like benzodiazepines, Adderall, and opioids are prescribed all the time. Currently, the best pharmaceutical approach to treating opioid addiction is maintenance with more opioids.
According to research, ibogaine can do the same things as methadone or buprenorphine and, more importantly, help users gain clarity on their internal struggles that led them to drugs in the first place. Addicts who want to recover have to put in the work, they have to take action to make life changes and ibogaine may be able to help them start that work. The problem of addiction in society is a complex one and I think that as a society we need to remain open to new ideas and be willing to try new things in dealing with that problem.