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?

Three of the deaths occurred at Wilkins’ Tijuana clinic. She says two of the patients had cocaine in their systems and the third victim had a preexisting heart condition. Wilkins is now more selective about her clients, she says, and requires they undergo a drug test. “The learning curve has been difficult at times, but people need to know this can be safe,” she says. “We have to show people how far we’ve come.”

Some of the scientists, however, think they’ve found alternatives that will make the risks—and the tripping—associated with ibogaine unnecessary.

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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

Mash has devised two ways to isolate the metabolite noribogaine and administer it: a pill and a patch similar to the nicotine variety. She hopes to begin testing the products on humans by the end of this year.

“It has all the benefits without the adverse side effects—including no hallucinations,” Mash says. “I spent a lot of years really pushing ibogaine as far as I could, both in preclinical and clinical studies. But everything that I’ve learned in the course of 18 years of working on ibogaine has convinced me that the active metabolite is the drug to be developed.”

Glick, meanwhile, teamed up with a chemist named Martin Kuehne from the University of Vermont to create and research a chemical called 18-MC (short for 18-methoxycoronaridine) that mimics ibogaine’s effect on a specific nicotinic receptor. Just like ibogaine, 18-MC appears to work wonders on drug-addicted rats.

“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.”

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.

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