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?

“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.”

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

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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.

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.”

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.

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