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While Thompson brought ibogaine into popular parlance, credit for discovering the drug’s medicinal potential is widely attributed to Howard Lotsof. A decade before the events that gave rise to Fear and Loathing, Lotsof was a junkie living in New York. Having bought some ibogaine for recreational use, Lotsof was astounded to find that when the hallucinogen wore off, he no longer craved heroin. Days passed, and he didn’t experience any of the excruciating withdrawal symptoms associated with kicking a dope habit.
Lotsof, who died earlier this year of liver cancer at age 66, devoted his life to making ibogaine available as an addiction treatment. He experienced a significant setback in 1967, when the U.S. government banned the drug, along with several other psychedelics. In 1970, officials categorized ibogaine as a Schedule I substance—on par with heroin, marijuana and other drugs that by definition have “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.”
Eventually, Lotsof shifted his focus and began using ibogaine to treat heroin addicts at a rehab clinic in the Netherlands. In 1985, he obtained a U.S. patent for the use of ibogaine to treat substance abuse.
By the late ’80s, doctors and scientists were confirming what Lotsof knew: Ibogaine blocks cravings and withdrawal symptoms for many types of drugs, opiates in particular.
“Its effects are pretty dramatic,” says Dr. Kenneth Alper, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University who specializes in addiction research. “I’ve observed this firsthand, and it’s difficult to account for.”
Dr. Stanley Glick, a pharmacologist and neuroscientist at Albany Medical College, was among the first researchers to test ibogaine on rats. Glick hooked up the rodents to IVs in cages with levers that allowed them to inject themselves with morphine.
“If the rats do it, you can be pretty sure that humans will abuse it if given the opportunity,” Glick explains. “It’s really the time-tested model of any human behavior.”
Strung-out rats dosed with ibogaine stopped pressing the lever that gave them morphine. Glick and other researchers have subsequently replicated the morphine results with other addictive drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and methamphetamine.
In the early 1990s, Lotsof teamed with Dr. Deborah Mash, a neurologist and pharmacologist at the University of Miami, to study the effect of ibogaine on people. Mash was granted FDA approval to administer ibogaine in 1993 and was able to test the drug on eight people before the experiment came to an abrupt halt.
“I was unable to get it funded,” Mash says. “We had the rocket ship on the launch pad with no fuel.”
A few months after the FDA gave Mash the green light, a committee of academics and pharmaceutical-industry professionals assembled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) concluded the U.S. government should not fund ibogaine research. Earlier that year, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University found that rats injected with massive doses of ibogaine suffered irreparable damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and motor skills. According to Dr. Frank Vocci, former director of treatment research and development at NIDA, the fact that ibogaine increases the risk of seizures for people addicted to alcohol or benzodiazepines such as Valium raised eyebrows as well.
“The question that was posed to them was ‘Do you think this could be a project that could result in, essentially, a marketable product?’” Vocci recalls. “There was concern about brain damage, seizures and heart rate. But it wasn’t so much that the ultimate safety of the drug was being damned; it was just felt there were an awful lot of warts on this thing.”
Mash and Lotsof soon parted ways, on unfriendly terms. Lotsof sued his former colleague and the University of Miami in federal court in 1996, claiming her research had infringed on his patent. A judge eventually ruled in favor of Mash and her employer, absolving them of wrongdoing.
Lotsof went his own way, mentoring fellow former addicts who opened ibogaine rehab centers abroad. Mash opened a private clinic on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and administered ibogaine to nearly 300 addicts. “It really works,” Mash says now. “If it didn’t work, I would have told the world it doesn’t work. I would have debunked it, and I would have been the most outspoken leader of the pack. That’s my scientific and professional credibility on the line.”
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Wilkins is one of Lotsof’s protégés. Born in South Africa and raised in Los Angeles, she got hooked on heroin at the age of 20 while majoring in Latin American studies and psychology at Cornell University. Drug use led to depression, and she dropped out her senior year. She’d been trying to get clean using methadone for eight and a half years when her younger sister learned about ibogaine via the Internet. Wilkins, then 30 years old and employed as bookkeeper, read up on the subject, started saving up and, in 2005, shelled out $3,200 for a session at the Ibogaine Association, a clinic in Tijuana.