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?

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.”

Recently, Wilkins has been experimenting with small daily doses of ibogaine for people with heart conditions or other health problems that make the “flood dose” inadvisable. The non-hallucinogenic regimen seems successful, she says, citing the case of former bodybuilder Price in particular.

Price first came to Tijuana for ibogaine in 1996 and has been back six times, including his October stay. “Every time I feel like I’m getting out of control, I come here,” he says, his voice a gruff mumble. “The very first time, I had a bit of visuals. It’s supposed to take six months to get off methadone. With this, it was one day. It was incredible. I haven’t had a craving for methadone since then.”

That first time, Price took a “flood dose,” enough to keep him tripping for hours on end. During this stay, Wilkins started him off with a tiny dose and gradually increased the amount he ingested each day. At the same time, she’s weaning him off Oxycontin.

“We reduced your Oxy dose from 240 milligrams to 120 milligrams, in what, two weeks? That’s rock & roll!” she says encouragingly.

“He was fantastic,” she adds proudly. “He developed a routine in his day. He was getting up and watering the garden and not staying in bed and watching TV. He was walking the dog and wanting to go out—he was eager to go home, not scared.”

Now, seated at Pangea’s kitchen table, Price reflects on what has been most helpful during his time in Mexico. The ibogaine lessened his cravings for drugs and alcohol, he says, but eventually, the effect will wear off.

“It’s no magic thing,” he says pensively. “It’s creating good habits and creating a support system. Ibogaine just strips you of the cells and walls you build up for yourself. It allows you to go AA meetings—which I’ll do when I get home. It at least gives you a fighting chance to make your own decision.”

 

A slightly shorter version of this story appeared in print.

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