The rainforest shrub Tabernanthe iboga, which produces ibogaine.
The slow-growing rainforest shrub Tabernanthe iboga has sacred roots in Central and West Africa. Literally. Chewed in small doses, the root stimulates alertness—a godsend for the Pygmies, or anyone whose survival depends on hunting while being hunted.
In more massive doses, the psychoactive alkaloid in the root bark—ibogaine—kicks in, inducing visions of ordinarily unseen realms. For the Bwiti religion, ceremonial doses of the root are used in overnight rituals, and are crucial to coming into contact with the dead and higher powers, and seeing one's entire life path.
Illegal in the United States, ibogaine's Schedule 1 classification indicates a high potential for abuse, and no accepted medicinal properties. But a recent study indicates, well, the exact opposite.
As part of its mission to support worldwide research into the use of psychedelics to treat substance abuse, the Santa Cruz-based organization MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), has been tracking the long-term progress of patients treated for opiate addiction in select ibogaine clinics in New Zealand and Mexico.
“The ibogaine treatment gave people the sense that they could overcome the addiction,” says Thomas Brown, Ph.D., who recently finished interviewing 30 subjects every month for a year, following their initial treatment in a Baja California clinic.
“It's clear that one treatment isn't going to cure everybody,” says Brown—many patients admitted to having relapsed on prescription painkillers or heroin during the first six months.“But it’s also clear that everyone in the study had the opportunity to stop using opiates, that there was a period that they weren't using that gave them a chance to kind of reset their lives.”
Those who were successful in kicking the addiction had also found the social support they needed to do so, notes Brown. “The ibogaine treatment is really just the beginning to ending the addiction. The rest of the work needs to be done after the treatment,” he says.
Getting the FDA to support further research is central to the drug development process, but no federal eyebrows will be raised at data that does not expound the risks. And there are plenty: to date, the sacred root has been linked to 19 fatalities, and the associated clinics shut down.
“This is something we report in our research because it's important to point out that ibogaine can be extremely dangerous,” says Brad Burge of MAPS. “It takes the body and mind to absolute extremes…Ibogaine is one of the most powerful psychedelic compounds in terms of the depth of the experience and also the length of the experience, so it's not likely to be a popular recreational drug. People don't just have a bunch of friends over for the night and do a bunch of ibogaine.“
An ibogaine trip lasts up to 36 hours, and is far more intense than LSD or psilocybin, procuring a dreamscape that can be nightmarish. Any reputable clinic requires a physical exam prior to treatment to rule out existing heart conditions. Even then, patients get a test dose before actual treatment, and remain in the clinic for up to two weeks afterwards, since ibogaine potentiates the opiate action, increasing risk of overdose if a patient relapses soon after.
Scientists are not yet clear whether ibogaine's anti-addiction properties are biochemical or psychological in nature. “It doesn't give everyone a profound [psychedelic] experience,” says Brown. “It seems like the interruption of the addiction can happen even without the profound psychospiritual experience. But I'm convinced by listening to people’s stories… that there's something very important about the psychedelic experience that ibogaine provides.”
Among his 30 subjects, those who reported profound experiences on ibogaine commonly described envisioning their future if they continued with their addictions—a vivid, not so pretty one—and many also reported realizing the full extent of pain they were causing to family and friends, for the first time.
“I was fascinated by people’s stories, and the powerful transformations they reported,” says Brown, on his initial interest in the study. “These were people who went from feeling like they were going to die from the opiates, or like they wanted to commit suicide, to being people working in the field of providing treatment for abuse and drug dependence.”
The MAPS-supported study in New Zealand is still in full swing, and while its focus is also opiate addiction, ibogaine's anti-addiction properties are showing to be effective for cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol and even cigarette addiction, says Brown.
So will the so-called War on Drugs someday be the War on Addiction? Only time (and studies) will tell.