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Shock the Junkie

A hallucinogen called ibogaine has helped addicts kick heroin, meth and everything in between. Is it the trip that does the trick?

“Cocaine, meth, nicotine, morphine—we did the same studies with 18-MC, and it worked as well or better than ibogaine,” Glick says. “We also have data that it will be useful in treating obesity. In animals, it blocks their intake of sweet and fatty foods without affecting their nutrient intake.”

Glick and his cohorts have yet to determine whether their synthetic ibogaine has psychedelic properties. The rats, after all, aren’t talking.

“You look at an animal given ibogaine, and you can’t tell if they’re hallucinating. But they look positively strange,” Glick says. “You give them 18-MC, and you can’t really tell. But we hope when it gets to people, it won’t produce hallucinatory effects.”

Andrew Nilsen
Clare Wilkins is director of Pangea Biomedics, a rehab clinic in Tijuana that administers ibogaine to drug addicts
Keegan Hamilton
Clare Wilkins is director of Pangea Biomedics, a rehab clinic in Tijuana that administers ibogaine to drug addicts

The first human testing of 18-MC is scheduled to begin later this month in Brazil. But scientists there won’t be studying its effect on addiction. They’ll be investigating the drug’s potential as a cure for the parasitic infection leishmaniasis, an affliction similar to malaria that is common in tropical climates. Through pure coincidence, 18-MC is chemically similar to other drugs that are used to treat the disease.

The Americans jumped at the chance to test their product in South America. Although 18-MC has shown promise and no observable side effects in animals, no pharmaceutical company has shown interest in developing it as an anti-addiction product.

“We’re fortunate we have this other disease apart from addiction on which we know it can be tested,” says Kuehne, a veteran of big pharma who worked for Ciba (a predecessor of Novartis). “Pharmaceutical companies don’t like cures. Really, they don’t—that’s the sad thing. They like treatment. Something for cholesterol or high-blood pressure that you [take] for years and years, every day—that’s where the profit is.”

“Imagine a Tinkertoy Ferris wheel,” says Bill Boulanger, Obiter’s CEO and a former chemistry professor at the University of Illinois. “It’s like taking that apart, then trying to using half of the parts to build a fire engine. Ibogaine is a natural product, and sometimes Mother Nature does a better job than the lab.”

Further complicating matters is the fact 18-MC has proven difficult to manufacture. Obiter Research, a company based in Champaign, Illinois, specializes in synthesizing experimental chemicals and spent nearly two years refining the process before successfully creating about 200 grams of the substance—just enough to send to Brazil to be administered to human subjects.

Boulanger is convinced there’s money to be made from 18-MC. With Obiter, he plans to patent the manufacturing process and secure intellectual-property rights. He and two partners also created a separate company, Savant HWP, in hopes of eventually opening addiction clinics across the United States that administer the chemical in conjunction with conventional rehab techniques such as 12-step programs.

“One part is resetting the trigger that’s saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have it,’” Boulanger says. “That’s helping the people fight withdrawal, and that would be part of the whole operation. But it’s just one facet. It’s got to be holistic. Just handing out a pill and sending them on their way is a bad idea.”

The notion of hallucination-free ibogaine, however, rubs the drug’s diehard supporters the wrong way.

“With methadone, they just removed euphoria from opiates,” says Dimitri “Mobengo” Mugianis. “This is the same process they’re doing now—removing psychedelic and visionary experience. Ibogaine works. What are they trying to improve or fix? It’s not broken, and they’re spending a great amount of time and money to fix it.”

A former heroin addict, Mugianis is an underground ibogaine-treatment provider. He kicked his habit with the help of ibogaine administered at Lotsof’s clinic in the Netherlands. The experience was so extraordinary that Mugianis was inspired to travel to Gabon to be initiated into the native Bwiti religion and trained by local shamans. He has performed more than 400 ritualistic ceremonies on addicts, he says, most of them in New York City hotel rooms, using ibogaine and iboga root bark.

Despite his strong belief in the power of ibogaine, Mugianis does not see it as a miracle cure for addiction. “The 12-step approach really helped in combination with ibogaine,” he says. “I say it interrupts the physical dependency because that’s what it does. There’s no cure. It’s not a cure. It allows you a window of opportunity, particularly with opiate users.”

*     *     *

Efforts are afoot to legalize—or at least legitimize—ibogaine in the United States. Convincing doctors and elected officials to support a potent, occasionally lethal hallucinogen can be a tough sell. That pitch becomes doubly difficult when some of the ibogaine enthusiasts themselves inspire skepticism.

One of ibogaine’s most outspoken advocates is Dana Beal. An eccentric character who helped found the Youth International Party (more commonly known as the Yippies) in the 1960s, Beal sports a bushy white mustache that a New York Times reporter likened to that of “a Civil War-era cavalry colonel.” Beal travels the country giving PowerPoint presentations touting the benefits of ibogaine and medical marijuana.

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