How Ibogaine Changes Lives
The boundless potential of psychedelics, in the realm of healthcare and healing, has seldom been out of the news recently. With every new development we see names once associated with counter culture, illegality and danger, stepping into a new light. LSD, magic mushrooms, DMT, MDMA— all the things your mamma warned you about, are now being proven to be the key for treating myriad mental health conditions. There is one name that may be unfamiliar to most however, and that is ibogaine.
You may also have seen it included on the lists of psychoactive plants that US organisation Decriminlize Nature wishes to have decriminalised. So first clue, it’s a psychoactive plant… but if it’s going to be a new wonder drug, we need to know a bit more about it than that it has leaves. Having been touted as an addiction cure, and a potential game changer in the handling of the ‘opioid crisis’ in the US, it seems like it’s high time to educate ourselves about ibogaine.
What Is It?
Ibogaine is a psychoactive substance extracted from the root barks of the iboga tree. A naturally occurring compound, it can also be found in all plants of the Apocynaceae family. It was first used by the Pygmy tribes of Central Africa, who then passed the knowledge of its uses to the Bwiti tribe of Gabon. This tribe then passed on the information to French explorers, who then brought it to Europe in around 1899-1900. The African tribes used it for medicinal, therapeutic and ceremonial purposes. In France it was marketed as Lamberene for use as a stimulant. In low doses the psychoactive qualities of the substance are minor, but it is effective at staving off tiredness.
By the 1960s however, it became illegal. In the 1950s and ‘60s some scientists had been noodling around with the compound as an antidepressant, but it would be a specific case that flagged up its potential as an anti-addiction tool.
In 1962, 19 year old heroin user Howard Lotsof got hold of some ground iboga. In search of a new high, little did he know he’d come around from his trip, (in his words) “straight.” Fascinated, he encouraged six of his friends, also heroin addicts, to try the substance. Five out of six of them immediately quit their drug use. From that moment on, Lotsof became a lifelong advocate of the substance. He facilitated the treatment of many addicts, and began a foundation. The FDA approved a clinical trial of ibogaine’s anti-addictive properties. Sadly, this stalled and ultimately did not come to pass, due to financing and contractual issues. Ibogaine remained illegal in the US. Lotsof died in 2010, sadly too early to see the changes now coming into being.
Treatment Is Expensive
However, ibogaine treatment has been available in a few locations since the ‘90s, mainly down to Lotsof’s advocacy. These clinics are largely in Mexico but it is also legal in South Africa, Brazil and New Zealand. Although, only when administered by a licensed professional. Unfortunately, at between $5000 and $10000 dollars, it is prohibitively expensive for most. Regardless, people from all over the world travel to these locations with the hope of treating their addictions.
How Does It Work?
In traditional rehabilitation settings, withdrawals are alleviated with further drugs, in a process known as ‘substitution’ therapy. Ibogaine is said to tackle the addiction itself, rather than replacing one substance with a bunch of others. Dana Beal, an ibogaine activist, explains that these 10 hour journeys are not like the psychedelic trips that many are familiar with.
“It’s not a hallucinogen like LSD. It’s not like you’re sitting there awake watching the trails on the wall. “You close your eyes and go into a waking dream. You’re paralyzed because you can’t summon the will to move. You just want to lie in a quiet room, left alone to review your lifetime of memories.”
Researchers are still not quite sure what makes ibogaine the ‘anti-drug’. However, a trickle of clinically approved studies are finally appearing. One of which, performed in 2018 and published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that after ibogaine treatment, 50% of patients at their three month check-up , reported having not used opioids in 30 days. This study, though small, opposes traditional methods, which use methadone, klonopin and buprenorphine. Up to half of patients fail to complete this treatment.
So What’s The Problem?
A factor that has hindered ibogaine’s steps towards legalisation is that there have been deaths recorded during treatment. However, the 19 fatalities recorded from over 4000 treatments worldwide, have largely been avoidable. Dr Ken Alper, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at NYU school of medicine explains most were the result of improper supervision or un-diagnosed health conditions. Nonetheless, this marks out ibogaine as too risky for the FDA to really get behind. Additionally, as a naturally occurring substance, Big Pharma can’t patent it and line their pockets with the profit, which negates their interest. Alper is however, working with Mind Medicine Inc, a Canadian company, to research a synthetic derivative called 18-methoxycoronaridine (18-mc). This has been synthesised to remove the risks and hallucinations associated with ibogaine.
Treatment Is Never Without Risk
Alper firmly believes that addiction should be seen as a chronic, though treatable, illness. In many cases, the treatment for a disease is not without risk. He explains;
“Yes, ibogaine has dangers, but what about the gravity of untreated dependence? If you’re developing a cancer treatment like chemotherapy, you’re going to tolerate serious side effects. Addiction being a life threatening condition is not fully factored into our tolerance for risk.”
Perhaps one of the elements really holding ibogaine research back is that we are only just beginning to understand addiction as illness to be treated, rather than as a pathology. However, as psychedelic plants and their phenomenal results continue to be researched, maybe, just maybe, minds will be opened. In fact, in Chicago’s recent successful petition to decriminalise natural psychedelics (including ibogaine) they directly cited the opioid crisis that the city is currently suffering from as a reason for its necessity.
There’s Lots Of Info Out There…
There is a strong selection of media about ibogaine to choose from if you want to learn more. For example, recently at Wholecelium HQ, we hunkered down (with distance!) to watch the 2019 documentary film Dosed. The film follows a long-term addict Adrianne and her rocky journey to recovery via psychedelic plant medicines, including iboga. Both fascinating and emotionally hard-hitting, it gave a window into the mysterious ways in which these substances work.