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?

In June 2008, he was arrested by police in Mattoon, Illinois, and charged with money laundering. He was carrying $150,000 in cash in two duffel bags, money he claims was going to finance an ibogaine clinic and research center in Mexico. Beal maintains his innocence and is free on bail as the case heads to trial.

It’s folks like Beal, says Glick, who keep ibogaine and 18-MC from being embraced by the medical mainstream.

“Some of my colleagues, as well as funding agencies, lump us together without really considering the data,” Glick says. “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with ibogaine—some of it warranted, some of it unwarranted. It’s really a stigma. Drug abuse itself has a stigma, and unfortunately, so does ibogaine. It has really hurt the science.”

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

Beal shrugs off the criticism, arguing that grassroots activism is the only way to ensure politicians will endorse ibogaine. Besides, he adds, the government stopped funding ibogaine research long before he was arrested. “[The scientists] think if they stay away from us activists, NIDA will bless them,” says the self-styled rabble-rouser. “NIDA is not blessing them. They’re washed up and on a strange beach. How will they get they get FDA-approved clinical trials without activists? Explain to me a way that works, and I will do it.”

Earlier this year, Beal contacted the legislative offices of Missouri congressman Russ Carnahan, who is the sponsor of the Universal Access to Methamphetamine Treatment Act, in hopes of persuading him to earmark federal dollars for ibogaine research. Asked about Beal’s proposal, Carnahan spokeswoman Sara Howard explains the Democratic legislator thought it inadvisable to specify any substance, particularly an illegal one. “It’s Schedule I, so it falls outside the categories [included in the bill],” she says.

Beal jokes that the best advertisement for ibogaine might be an episode from the 11th season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in which a heroin addict who needs to testify in court is administered ibogaine to make his withdrawal symptoms disappear overnight. “Maybe Congress will watch SVU and say, ‘Maybe we should check this out—wow!—it works for methamphetamine, too?’” he says sarcastically.

In truth, ibogaine’s effectiveness against meth has already helped it gain acceptance abroad. Lawmakers in New Zealand, where methamphetamine use has skyrocketed in recent years, tweaked the nation’s laws to allow physicians to prescribe ibogaine. Dr. Gavin Cape, an addiction specialist at New Zealand’s Dunedin School of Medicine, says the nation’s doctors are so far reluctant to wield their new anti-meth weapon. “[There are] no true controlled studies to give evidence as to its safety and effectiveness,” Cape says. “There is a strong advocacy group [in New Zealand] for ibogaine, and it may turn out to have a place alongside conventional therapies for the addictions, but, I’m afraid, we are a few years away from that goal.”

Last month, dozens of ibogaine researchers, activists and treatment providers gathered for a conference in Barcelona, where topics included safety and sustainable sourcing of ibogaine from Africa. Alper was among the attendees who gave a presentation on the benefits of its use to the Catalan Ministry of Health. The NYU professor believes ibogaine’s most likely path to prominence in the United States will be as a medication for meth addiction for the simple reason that doctors and treatment providers have found that small daily—and thus drug-company-friendly—doses seem to work better for meth addiction than the mind-blowing “flood doses” used on opiate addicts.

Alper says no one thought to try non-hallucinogenic quantities until recently. Ibogaine-treatment providers tend to have been former ibogaine users, and most assumed the introspection brought on by tripping was key to overcoming their addictions. “That’s just how it evolved,” he says, noting that the large doses do seem to work best for opiate detox. “You’re talking about a drug that has been used in less than 10,000 people in the world in terms of treatment. It’s not surprising that’s how it evolved.

“The visions have some psychological content that is salient and meaningful,” Alper says. “On the other hand, there is no successful treatment for addiction that’s not interpreted as a spiritual transformation by the people who use it. It’s the G-word. It’s God. We as physicians don’t venture into that territory, but most people do.”

Wilkins draws the same parallel between conventional rehab programs and ibogaine, but she’s quick to emphasize there are distinct differences. For one, her program is never court-ordered. Those who seek out ibogaine come of their own volition.

“People are really over the whole model of ‘I’m an addict, and I’m an addict for life unless I do these 12 steps,’” she argues. “Even though it works for a lot of people, there are a lot of people who come to us and say it doesn’t work. We have to listen to them. Our approach is allowing them to go in and find themselves, which is what the 12 steps preach anyway. They’re hungering for a spiritual experience.”

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