Ibogaine is a psychoactive chemical found in the Tabernanthe iboga plant. It has both hallucinogenic and dissociative properties, which means it produces both hallucinations and feelings of detachment. Ibogaine-containing brews have been used in rituals in the African spiritual tradition of Bwiti – this is a tradition practised by the Fang people of Gabon and it incorporates animism, ancestor worship and Christianity. The Fang people, among others in Gabon, claim that ibogaine promotes spiritual growth, preserves community and family structure and can even cure pathological problems. It is used in initiation rites and also as a medicine. As a hallucinogenic plant it causes introspection and closed and open-eyed visuals; but it also has some nasty side-effects, including sleeplessness, nausea and vomiting even a day after consumption.
Howard Lotsof, an American researcher, was addicted to heroin at the age of 19. But he then stumbled upon ibogaine and found that it had anti-addictive properties – by ingesting the plant he managed to kick his heroin habit. Current treatment for drug addiction falls into two categories. The first is called replacement therapy and includes treatments such as methadone for heroin addicts and non-tobacco nicotine for smokers. The second is called aversion therapy and includes drugs which interact with the drug of abuse in a way which causes unpleasant side-effects such as physical pain, nausea and vomiting. The hope is that while on one of these drugs, the addict will avoid the abused substance out of a desire to avoid these unpleasant effects.
Ibogaine seems to have some clear advantages over both of these treatments. Firstly, both replacement and aversion therapy are long-term treatments, meaning many visits to a clinic over a long period of time. But as Lotsof has pointed out, ibogaine treatment involves less frequent sessions, usually just the one, and also because of this fact it is not as time-consuming as replacement or aversion therapy. Secondly, unlike drugs such as methadone, ibogaine does not appear to be addictive – either physically or psychologically. The ibogaine experience can be mentally and physically disturbing, so there doesn’t seem to be a reason why anyone would want to abuse it. Methadone, on the other hand, is highly addictive and a lot of the time just creates a new addiction on top of a heroin addiction.
There is a wealth of evidence which suggests that ibogaine is effective in treating drug addiction. Case studies and anecdotal reports show that ibogaine can prevent opiate and cocaine addictions for 6 months or longer. In one case a man named Thillen Naidoo had been addicted to crack cocaine for 15 years of his life and had tried to quit several times, with no success. As a last resort, someone recommended he try ibogaine and after several medical tests, he was given a pill of the drug at the Minds Alive Rehab Centre in South Africa. Scenes from his childhood surfaced and flashed before him – these hallucinogenic effects wore off overnight, but for the next few days, he was still affected by the experience. When he returned home a week later he longer felt any urge to use cocaine and six months after the experience he is still clean. Dr Anwar Jeewa, from the Minds Alive Rehab Centre, said he has treated around a thousand addicts with this plant, but it is still not recognised as a suitable treatment in the mainstream medical community.
In terms of how ibogaine works to treat addiction, scientists understand that ibogaine creates a protein that blocks receptors in the brain which usually trigger cravings. This stops the symptoms of withdrawal and so gives the addict no incentive to use the substance again. Dr Stanley Glick in the 90s researched the effects of ibogaine on rats. The rats were able to self-administer morphine through a tube, but when given ibogaine they voluntarily stopped.
The second effect of ibogaine is less understood. This is the dream-like state it produces. In this state the participant becomes highly introspective, allowing the addict to address issues in their life which may be responsible for their abuse of drugs or alcohol. Lotsof was so convinced by the power of ibogaine that he set up a private clinic in the Netherlands in the 80s. Similar clinics have emerged in Canada, Mexico and South Africa. However, ibogaine is a schedule I drug in America, meaning it is recognised as having a “high potential for abuse” and has “no currently accepted medical use”. It is also illegal in the countries which have ibogaine treatment centres set up. A small group of scientists are trying to bring ibogaine into the mainstream so that the legal status of it can change.
One frustrating but possible reason why pharmaceutical companies won’t fund research with ibogaine is that it is a natural substance and is therefore difficult to patent and make money from. Luckily though, the non-profit organisation MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is currently studying ibogaine treatment in centres in Mexico and New Zealand. Both studies are looking at the safety and effectiveness of ibogaine and whether it helps opiate-dependent people to overcome their drug use. Both studies are being carried out in independent clinics – the hope is that the results – if they are positive – will persuade the mainstream medical community to reconsider their views on ibogaine.
The MAPS researchers do state, however, that ibogaine does have risks. Ibogaine use has a mortality rate of about 1 in 300 and can be attributed to the slowing of the heart, combination with other substances and liver problems. Anyone thinking of using ibogaine should weigh the risks and benefits and it should really only be used with medical assistance in a safe setting. Dr Sussanna Galea has said that ibogaine treatment is well worth the risk. If she is correct and if the MAPS trials are successful, it could, in fact, be worth using ibogaine-assisted therapy to treat nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin and other forms of substance addiction.