Why addicts desperate to kick the habit are turning to this risky treatment

After suffering from anxiety and depression, freelance writer Stefanie Cohen sought help at an ibogaine clinic similar to the one where banking heir Matthew Mellon had received treatment and was about to check into again before his death last week. Cohen found the results so effective, she worked for a time for the Ibogaine Institute, writing web copy for the center. Here, she tells what it’s like taking the drug and why so many people are turning to it for help…

I’ve been running through a gauntlet of people for the past four hours, answering questions, laughing at jokes, getting spit on and hit on and molested. At every turn there’s another person who wants something from me. Some shout. Some whisper so quietly I can barely hear them. And their faces and bodies keep morphing, too — they get fat and thin and tall and short all within a matter of seconds. My parents are there, somewhere, and my sisters, too, but I can’t find them right now because a giant man with six faces is coming right for me.

None of these visions are real, although they feel stunningly vivid. In actuality, I’m lying on my back with a heart monitor taped to my chest in an ibogaine clinic in Rosarito, Mexico. Earlier in the night I swallowed three pills of ibogaine — an alkaloid derived from the African Tabernanthe iboga plant — and I’m in the middle of what feels like the most demented fever dream my mind could possibly imagine.

I found myself at the Ibogaine Institute in Rosarito not because I was addicted to heroin, but because I was anxious and depressed and couldn’t figure out why.

I’d been working as a journalist in New York for years, having climbed every ladder I thought I was supposed to climb, but found myself leaning against the wrong wall. I was drinking way too much and waking up each day wishing I hadn’t. I felt like I had lost touch with my soul, so I quit my job and went in search of it. But what followed was even worse — a year of not working with no idea what I was going to do with my life.

I’d taken pharmaceuticals to calm me in the past, Xanax especially, but it was only masking the problem. I decided to seek out alternative cures, so I went to a conference on psychedelic science in Oakland last April, where doctors and researchers shared the most cutting-edge science on the subject of psychedelics and mental health. I was fascinated, but I wasn’t feeling any better. So when a man came up to me in the hotel lounge and asked what was wrong, I surprised myself by being honest. “I am filled with anxiety and I don’t know why,” I said.

“You know,” he responded, “ibogaine can treat that.”

I had heard about ibogaine and its positive effects on people suffering from heroin addiction, but the man explained it can be used to treat other psychological disorders. He explained that one “flood dose” of ibogaine can reset the neural pathways in the brain, breaking the destructive thought patterns that keep a person locked into bad habits. The man, Scott Ankeny, explained that he ran an ibogaine clinic near Tijuana and I should come do a treatment and write about it.

I couldn’t imagine anything more anxiety-fueling than the thought of flying to a rehab in Tijuana to take a psychedelic plant. But Ankeny kept in touch with me, and a month later, when I was in a particularly bad state, I figured I had nothing to lose.

So in May of last year, I checked myself into the Ibogaine Institute. Consisting of a few connected houses on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it didn’t feel like a clinic. The other patients were from all over the country and they seemed really happy, considering where we were. I, meanwhile, was nervous and wondering if I’d made a huge mistake.

A month’s stay at the institute costs $12,500 and includes not only ibogaine, which adherents claim detoxes the body and mind, but also a rigid schedule of classes meant to teach new coping skills to handle stress without turning to drugs. Yoga was offered daily, along with qigong, an ancient Chinese system of breathing and movement. An acupuncturist visited a few times a week. Everyone was expected to attend therapy and AA sessions. The clinic made full use of other alternative medicines, too. A week after the ibogaine session, patients would be given 5MEO DMT, a psychedelic made from the venom of a desert toad that, when smoked, brings on an emotional and often deeply spiritual experience. And a week after that, they would also take part in three ceremonies administering ayahuasca, another plant-based hallucinogen that helps foster self-reflection and peace of mind. The whole program was designed by Ankeny (who has since left to work with another clinic) not only to detox but to heal the body, mind and spirit.

In between classes, patients talked about movies, life, their families, their sadnesses. Laughter rang through the houses all day. But some were also angry. Getting clean, seeing what damage they’d caused to themselves and others was painful.

When I first arrived, I was given an EKG to make sure my heart could handle ibogaine because one of its side effects is that it can slow the heartbeat to a point where heart failure, especially among those with a weak heart, is a possibility. I wasn’t at risk, but nonetheless every patient is hooked up to a heart monitor throughout the treatment.

Five days into my stay, I was led to a room with a bed where a nurse hooked me up to an IV to keep my electrolyte levels healthy while she explained the procedure.

I was told I’d take three pills and a little bit later I’d begin to see swirling patterns on the ceiling, which meant the medicine was in my system. The actual trip would begin when I heard a buzzing noise, she said. An ambulance was parked outside the clinic and a paramedic would be by my side throughout my treatment, just in case.

I lay down, put on my blindfold, and said a prayer. While I waited, I heard a motorcycle pull up behind the house. Then another. I called the nurse over. “Why is there a motorcycle gang outside?” I asked. She smiled. “There’s no gang,” she said. “That’s the medicine kicking in. That noise is inside your own head.”

It was so loud, I couldn’t believe it. Moments later I saw two giant wooden doors descend from the ceiling. Slowly they opened. I left the bed and floated through them. The trip had begun. Then I was in the gantlet of people, an endless looping maze that went down at first, and then up. I must have talked to 1,000 people that night.

After what I’m guessing was about six hours, the medicine finally wore off. I had hardly moved, although I asked the nurses later and they told me that I was talking out loud at some points and laughing even. I sat up, took off my blindfold and felt . . . clear. My head, normally filled with so many racing thoughts, was completely quiet.

Researchers are beginning to understand how ibogaine works. When first taken, it appears to suppress an enzyme that causes the flu-like symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal, said Dana Beal, a science writer and ibogaine expert who has been working with the plant since the 1980s. Beal claims it also raises serotonin levels and improves mood in the weeks following treatment and regenerates cells damaged by drug use, which helps to keep cravings at bay.

But there are risks involved. There are no hard numbers, but University of California, San Diego, researcher Thomas Kingsley Brown, who studies ibogaine, estimates that about 30 people have died from taking the medication for opioid addiction since the 1960s, when it was found to treat heroin addiction.

“The majority of ibogaine-related deaths are cardiac-related, generally involving preexisting cardiovascular disease or problems with electrolyte levels often caused by poor nutrition, which drug users often have,” said Kenneth Alper, a psychopharmacologist and neurologist at NYU who studies ibogaine. “Meaning, many of these risk factors are to a great extent preventable,” he said. “Appropriate screening, preparation, monitoring during treatment and personnel trained to deal with cardiac issues are needed when administering the plant medicine, but even in that perfect world you may still have fatalities.”

At the same time, addicts have to weigh the risks of ibogaine treatment against the dangers of heroin and other opioids. According to data released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses in the US have increased by 13.3 percent from August 2016 to August 2017, and now total 67,344 deaths per year. Drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined. The vast majority of those overdoses are caused by opiates, said Alper.

Kingsley Brown estimates that, conservatively, about 12,000 to 15,000 people have undergone ibogaine treatment in the West since 1962. There are roughly 80 clinics worldwide, he said. Others believe the number of patients is much higher. But everyone agrees the use of ibogaine as a treatment is growing exponentially as the opioid epidemic explodes. Meanwhile, 15 percent of the Ibogaine Institute’s clientele are people suffering from depression and anxiety, said Thom Leonard, who now runs the clinic.

“Ibogaine does bring with it a serious risk and should never be taken lightly,” Leonard said. “But with the proper screening and testing carried out, that risk drops to an acceptable level. And if you look at the fact that the average life expectancy of an IV drug user is somewhere around 6 years and overdose has taken over as the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the United States, it starts to become clear that the minimal risk involved in undergoing an ibogaine treatment done in a safe setting by a reputable provider is the least dangerous choice an addict can make.”

Astudy by Alper and Kingsley Brown published last year in Mexico found that among the 30 addict participants, 50 percent reported no opiate use one month after ibogaine treatment and 33 percent reported no use after three months. According to the results of that study, ibogaine’s rate of success is higher than traditional anti-addiction medications, like methadone and suboxone, which only 15 to 25 percent of addicts said led to no opioid use four to six weeks after stopping treatment, according to Alper.

People do relapse after ibogaine treatment. Many return to their lives only to be tempted to use again by the same triggers that got to them before. But it’s different, said one former patient who asked not to be named. “Ibogaine isn’t a cure,” she said. “I can say that for me, I could never put more than a few days [sober] together for 28 years. After ibogaine, I’ve used heroin one time this year. I also didn’t enjoy it, and I immediately asked for help and am sober again now.”

Kevin Franciotti’s oxycodone habit turned into heroin addiction in 2010 while he was a student at Northeastern. He , studying behavioral neuroscience, when he descended into its grip, but claims the ibogaine he took at a clinic in Mexico in 2011 stopped his addiction, at least for a time.

When the inevitable craving for a fix came, he wanted to call his dealer. “Previously it would be off to the races, no fighting it,” he said. But this time he thought, “I’m going to wait five minutes to make this phone call.”

Five years later, he did have a relapse. But after about six months, he pulled out of it. He credits ibogaine with a fundamental life change that allowed him to be open-minded enough to go through 12-step recovery. Now 31, he is at The New School, getting a master’s in clinical psychology.

Almost one year after ibogaine treatment, I can also attest to the plant’s positive effects. I’m calmer now and more naturally drawn to nicer, more loving people. I guess maybe I’m nicer and more loving myself. I still have moments where my brain kicks into high gear, filled with thoughts it has no business thinking. But I can control them better now.

But my experience is nothing compared with my fellow patients at the clinic. While there, I saw addicts walk in ashen and grey, their cheeks hollow, their eyes dead. After treatment, they smiled. They gained weight. Their eyes sparkled. And many have since turned their lives around.

Jeremy Shank, 43, of Seattle, is one of them. After battling a heroin addiction for 12 years while living on the streets and “welcoming death,” he has been clean since visiting the Ibogaine Institute in April last year and is now a college student.

“I’d like to say that the plant medicines gave me back my life,” Shank told me. “But really I can’t say that, because this is so much better than the life I had before.”

 

Ibogaine: The facts

What is ibogaine? Ibogaine is the main psychoactive compound in the iboga root bark, a shrub imported from West Africa.

Is it legal? Ibogaine is illegal in the US but legal in South Africa, Brazil and New Zealand. It’s also unregulated in many countries, including Mexico.

What does it treat? Mainly addiction to opioids, alcohol, cocaine and tobacco. It has also been used to treat sufferers of depression and anxiety.

Who pioneered it? Ibogaine has been used for addiction treatment since the 1960s after it was discovered by a 19-year-old named Howard Lotsof, who got it from a chemist friend and found his cravings for heroin disappeared. He dedicated the rest of his life to championing the medicine in the fight against addiction.

How is it taken? It’s generally taken orally.

What are its effects? It purportedly blocks opioid withdrawal effects and produces psychedelic visions that help patients see their lives from a new perspective. It can cause vomiting during the treatment, sleeplessness and restlessness in the days that follow, and occasionally, heart failure during treatment.

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