When Bad People happen to Good Drugsby Ray van Wyk / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 03.09.2012
Psychedelic trip descriptions are usually so far removed that it’s almost impossible to relate, especially if you as the listener don’t have experience with the same; forcing people to become typically boring, contrived or over-enthusiastic when going on at length about some cat turning into millions of cats or red vortexes sucking them through space and time into ‘like other dimensions man’. However, once in a while, a psychedelic comes along with real, quantifiable benefits for the individual. It becomes less about the content of the trip and more about the qualities of the psychedelic in question that we need to talk about.
I stumbled across ibogaine when looking into some research from the 1960’s about LSD being used to help alcoholics kick the sauce. I was trying to help a man in over his head on red wine but with enough sense and too little regret to sign up for a 12 step program.
Ibogaine remains just as obscure today as it was in the 60’s when it was re-discovered by junkie turned doctor/mad pharmacist Howard Lotsof. Lotsof immediately ate the drug when a friend offered it to him, saying only that he might find it interesting and that it was an alkaloid extracted from the West African plant Tabernanthe Iboga.
The drug had been discovered by French and Belgian explorers late in the 1800s and was sold in France as a dietary agent in the 1930s, but very little was known in the West about it’s psychedelic and addiction interrupting effects, until Lotsof’s serendipitous encounter.
Used in the Bwiti religion of Gabon and Cameroon, the raw root bark of the plant is consumed in massive quantities to induce a dreamlike trance; accompanied by deeply introspective visions. Lotsof experienced these but it was not until the next day that he realised his complete lack of withdrawal and absence of craving for the ‘perfect whatever drug‘ which he had been heavily into at the time. Soon after, Lotsof started his crusade to legitimize ibogaine and enter it into the mainstream pharmacopoeia until his death in 2010.
Unlike almost all other psychedelics, ibogaine has a deliniable effect on opioid receptors and stimulates the production of a growth factor which restores burnt out receptor sites; accelerating and transforming the potentially excruciating detox and post acute stages of opiate withdrawal from possibly several months, into 24 hours of deep, visionary introspection. I took the drug myself with no real aim other than to gain some perspective of what I was getting myself into. It really sucks as a recreational drug, producing almost complete paralysis, overwhelming nausea and deafening buzzing in the ears for 18 hours in my case. But it works for methamphetamine and alcohol dependence, in all cases interrupting addiction with lasting effects due to sustained serotonin reuptake inhibition in the brain after only a single dose is taken.
In contrast, current treatments for opiate dependence demand either the use of long acting opiates to wean oneself off dependence, opiate antagonists which block all opiate receptors – effectively sending the body into withdrawal as soon as an opiate is taken – or abstinence programs. None of which addresses adequately the problems of detox and withdrawal, and providing zero insight into the reasons behind the choices that lead to dependence.
What is the reason, you may ask, that this is not a widely prescribed treatment for substance dependence?
One could argue that since the original patent for the treatment of drug dependence with ibogaine was issued in 1985; Big Pharma can’t line their pockets off the profits and are far more interested in peddling narcotics they own than doing the world any good.
Purdue Pharma made $3.1 billion in 2010 off OxyContin sales in the US alone, a brand of opiate analgesic containing oxycodone. That’s one product, from a single company, in one country, generating two times the GDP of 3 African countries combined (São Tomé and Príncipe, Comoros and Guinea-Bissau) for the same year.
Of course, it’s in everybody’s interest, from stockholders down to government and certainly the suits at Purdue, not to develop a drug with addiction interrupting properties when one of their most profitable products relies heavily on consumer dependence as a working business model. Take into account also, buprenorphine, sold as Subutex\Suboxone, which generated $1 billion in sales worldwide in 2010. Similar to methadone and used as a substitute for short acting opiates. Profits could be seriously undercut if ibogaine were developed as an addiction interrupter as opposed to the current treatment modality of ‘substitution therapy’.
Ibogaine is classified as a Schedule 1 substance under the US’ 1970 Controlled Substances Act:
A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the US.
C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
…to claims from within the scientific community that reports of its efficacy are anecdotal at best since no solid medical testing has been done to demonstrate these effects in humans. However, ongoing tests, underground providers and patients confirm ibogaine’s efficacy.
We are lucky in this regard as ibogaine has never been declared officially illegal in South Africa, mainly due to its obscurity. It sort of falls in a gray zone between hard-core psychedelic and traditional medicine, leaning more towards the latter as it has some pretty nasty side effects which discourage its use in Western contexts outside circles of die hard heads and strung out junkies.
It is against a backdrop of ever increasing frustration in not receiving funding for clinical trials to legitimize its use (pharmaceutical companies generally fund these trails which cost millions of dollars, demand thousands of man hours from doctors, pharmacists, clinicians and patients and take years to complete. Multiple trials are needed before studies into the effects on drug dependence in humans can even begin) that the ibogaine community continues to conduct small scale treatment for those lucky enough to find out about it.
As far as I am aware there are only 5 Ibogaine providers in South Africa.
One in Cape Town, a self styled traditional hippy healer named Simon “Nzegho” Loxton with a supposed laundry list of ibogaine related court cases to his name, one in Johannesburg, an illusive man by the name of Kevin Walker who, when asked about ibogaine, suggested I fly up to Johannesburg to attend one of his Iridoligy courses and two in Durban. One of whom is a burly freelance ex-crack addict whose hands and arms are covered in third degree burns from a cook gone wrong on a Brazilian beach and the other, a residential treatment facility.
It was at this facility that I spent a good portion of the first half of 2012 observing, working the phones and researching the many intricate layers of internal politics, treatment modalities and efficacy claims of ibogaine at this center. In so doing, I experienced firsthand the fact that where money, politics and organized religions are involved, human self-interest will prevail. And that this was a bad scene for everyone from the cleaning staff through to patients and management.
The owners are both members of PAGAD, the vigilante drug hate group who famously burnt gang leader, Rashaad Staggie alive in Salt River in 1996 and were subsequently designated a terrorist organization by the South African government.
I sat in a reception office all day, within earshot of a short tempered moustachioed hate-monger, long ago turned cynical, depressed and angry from his crusade against drugs. His personal misgivings about how well the fatwa is working ignored and projected into true loathing for anything drug related. The irony of his involvement with ibogaine, I’m sure, is lost on his conscious mind.
The second member of the treatment team and the only one with a semblance of knowledge about the drug is an ex-dentist who is now a full time ‘doctor’ at the clinic. He has made numerous press appearances and would often surprise me with opinions of all other local ibogaine providers as crooks and charlatans. Denouncing every drug, but regularly taking the ibogaine in small doses “to keep himself focused” and smoking cigarettes like they’re about to be declared illegal, the good doctor is shocked at centers in Holland allowing patients to smoke weed while in treatment and was once himself an addict.
Before I go on I would like the reader to keep in mind that this is not about those who administer ibogaine in this country. It is about people who potentially stand to lose their money, their dignity and possibly their sanity because they had arrived at their last stop and are willing to accept help regardless of the cost to them or their Saviour’s (and this is not too strong a word, for any provider becomes, in a sense, a messiah) true intentions. These are people we know, people we love, possibly even ourselves. In this regard we are all responsible to provide an environment for change that is of the highest practical, ethical and compassionate nature and to question and correct, always, our motives and actions when we hold in our hands the life of another.
These men are fighting a war on two fronts; on the one hand trying to eliminate the ‘scourge of drug abuse on our streets’ and, paradoxically, trying to fight for ibogaine as a legitimate treatment for drug dependence. All this struggle however amounts to a listless, jaded attitude, a turning inward to personal concerns and a neglect for patient needs.
Amidst talk of the current climate of drug use being the work of Shatan ushering in the end times and the ubiquity of dead eyed zombie children roaming the streets at night being the logical next step, I grew weary. My own efforts in suggesting something further away from a fear trip for the emaciated whoonga warriors who trickle in to the centre every Monday morning, were met with disdain.
When asked if we could accommodate a woman, housebound by fear in her 30s, hooked on sleeping pills and benzos, by reducing her cost for treatment, I was told by the doctor that, ‘I have been helping others long enough, it’s time to help ourselves’. At R12000 for 6 days of in-patient treatment this is certainly no NPO. When asked if we should not be providing intensive pre-treatment counselling for patients with no prior experience with psychedelics after this incident with a Dutch patient; I was told definitively that it would make no difference and that it would only incur unnecessary cost, effort and create a sense of entitlement in the patient.
I was ultimately called in by the little man, the Good Doctor being conveniently absent, told not to ask questions about the reasons why this was “not working out” and sent packing the very same morning. In retrospect my anger, firstly at being fired and secondly at the responses and attitudes of the owners to what seem like issues they should be acutely sensitive to, was justified, but I can’t help but allow room for the state in which circumstance has left these once well intentioned men.
With the knowledge of what this drug can do to help people you potentially care about has to come the ability to administer it responsibly, for you see, ibogaine is not a magic bullet, nor is it intrinsically safe. Depending on who you reference, as little as 2 people have died and as many as 1 in 300 people do die from ingesting ibogaine. Conservative estimates puts the number at 19 confirmed deaths loosely related to ibogaine ingestion since 1962 when records began. The confirmed cases of death on ibogaine are, in nearly all cases, explicable due to concomitant substance use or poor heart, kidney or liver function. This simply means running standard ECG and liver/kidney function tests and having a qualified person interpret the results as well as monitoring blood pressure and heart rate during the trip. By following this protocol the margins of safety are widened considerably.
But besides concerns for physical safety, mental and emotional factors must also be considered. The need for accurate psychological pre-assessment and tailored psychological post treatment are paramount to anyone who wishes to stay clean. The administration of powerful psychedelics to people at their most vulnerable, in my opinion, is not a task that should be taken on by for-profit institutions or those with any sort of agenda besides genuinely helping people who really want to be helped. It is a task that should be entrusted to individuals with adequate training, personal experience and most important of all, good intentions, and it is very difficult to maintain good intentions when looking out for the wallet of Numero Uno or when one becomes immovably rooted in idealistic thinking.
Following the European model of administering ibogaine in comfortable settings like homes and hotel rooms, where the focus is on the individual needs of the patient, seems like a good alternative when contrasted with institutions like these. The concern with doing this is of course safety and one could argue that morbidity and mortality take precedence over anything else, but the systems in place to account for this seem to be failing on so many other levels. With a few hours of research and the right equipment, ibogaine can be made extremely safe compared to the safety of a flesh eating heroin habit.
It may never come to pass that ibogaine is recognized for what it truly is – or is not – but this should not discourage those that can use it safely and responsibly from doing so. How this will play out in the real world is anybody’s guess, but since it has a low appeal for recreational use and people are generally afraid to deal with death, it seems likely things could come to a point where every person dependent on something can be afforded the opportunity to be free from dependence if they so choose and to be able to achieve this with relative safety by using ibogaine as a tool.
*Visit http://www.ibogaine.desk.nl/ for more info.
**Illustration © Alastair Laird.