Turn On, Meet God, Get Straight
An African root bark may offer clues to addiction
LA Weekly August 22, 2003
by Daniel Pinchbeck
In 1962, a young junkie named Howard Lotsoff ordered iboga, a plant used in West African rituals, and tried it for extra kicks. After consuming the bitter root-bark powder, he experienced a visionary tour of his early memories. Thirty hours later, when the effects had subsided, he found that he had lost all craving for heroin, without withdrawal symptoms of any kind. He then gave it to seven other addicts, who were using either cocaine or heroin; five stopped taking drugs immediately afterward.
Thus were ibogaine's anti-addictive properties discovered accidentally. A little more than two decades later, Lotsoff patented the ibogaine molecule for purposes of addiction treatment, but the FDA wouldn’t approve it; ibogaine was subsequently declared, along with LSD and a number of other psychedelic molecules, an illegal “Schedule 1” substance, with potential for abuse and no medical value. Despite the dedicated enthusiasm of a ragtag group of countercultural activists and leftover Yippies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discontinued research into the substance in 1995.
Now, suddenly, through a combination of anecdotal evidence, underground activism, journalism and scientific research, interest in ibogaine is approaching the proverbial tipping point: Articles have appeared in publications ranging from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to The Star. The JAMA piece, “Addiction Treatment Strives for Legitimacy,” describes ibogaine’s stalled and tortured path through the regulatory agencies, noting that the treatment’s frustrated supporters in the U.S. have set up an underground railroad to provide addicts access to the drug: “While unknowable scores of addicts continue ingesting ibogaine hydrochloride purified powder — or iboga whole-plant extract containing a dozen or more active alkaloids — few trained researchers witness the events.” The Star, unsurprisingly, takes a more colorful approach: An article headlined “Rare Root Has Celebs Buzzing” trumpeted the treatment as the hot ticket for “the numerous celebs who look for relief from their tough lives in the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a needle or prescription medicine.” The article insinuates that “some of our favorite A-listers” not only get cured but enjoy the hallucinations as an illicit “fringe benefit.”
Outside of the U.S., new clinics have opened in Mexico, Vancouver and Europe, offering reasonably priced and medically supervised opportunities to try ibogaine as a method of overcoming addiction. In fact, at one new Vancouver clinic, the treatment is free.
The Ibogaine Therapy House in Vancouver, British Columbia, opened last November. “So far, we have treated 14 people quite well,” says Marc Emery, the clinic’s founder as well as the head of the B.C. Marijuana Party. “They all say that their lives have improved.” Emery, nicknamed “the Prince of Pot,” is funding the free clinic with proceeds from his successful hemp-seed business. “Ibogaine stops the physical addiction without causing withdrawal, and it deals with the underlying psychological issues which lead to drug use.”
The Vancouver clinic currently has three full-time employees: two facilitators and one screener. Emery estimates that treatment for each patient costs around $1,500, which includes two administrations of the drug. “When I first found out about ibogaine, I felt that someone should be researching this, but the drug companies aren’t interested, because there is no commercial potential in this type of cure,” he says. Emery is deeply concerned about ambiguous studies on ibogaine’s toxicity. As the article in the JAMA noted, “One reviewer wrote that the drug’s toxicology profile was ‘less than ideal,’ with ‘bradycardia [an abnormally slow heartbeat] leading the list of worrisome adverse effects.’”
“From the masses of reports I’ve studied, a total of six people have died around the time they took ibogaine,” Emery says. “Some of them were in poor health, and some took other drugs at the time of their treatment. That doesn’t scare me off. I have a lot of confidence in ibogaine.” At this point, with little scientific study, the true toxicology of ibogaine is impossible to determine — the treatment is unlicensed in other countries and illegal in this one. Emery notes that the Ibogaine Therapy House screens for heart problems and other medical conditions that would contraindicate the treatment. His clinic also gives patients small daily doses of iboga for two weeks after their initial treatment. “Iboga tends to make anything bad for you taste really crappy. If possible, we want our patients to quit cigarettes at the same time. We think that cigarettes can lead people back to other addictions.”
Iboga is the sacred essence of the Bwiti religion of Gabon and Cameroon. Most members of the tribe ingest it just once in their lives, during an initiation ceremony in which massive amounts of the powdered bark are consumed. Through this ritual, each participant becomes a baanzi, one who has seen the other world. “Iboga brings about the visual, tactile and auditory certainty of the irrefutable existence of the beyond,” wrote the French chemist Robert Goutarel, who studied the Bwiti.
The iboga bark’s visionary power is produced by a complicated cocktail of alkaloids that seems to affect many of the known neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Its complex molecular key may lock into the addiction receptors in a way that resets patterns and blocks the feedback loops that reinforce dependency. In an essay on ibogaine, Dr. Carl Anderson of McLean Hospital, Virginia, has speculated that addiction is related to a disrupted relationship between the brain’s two hemispheres, and that ibogaine may cause “bihemispheric reintegration.” Ibogaine also accesses REM sleep in a powerful way — many people need considerably less sleep for several months after an ibogaine trip.
Six years ago, I became a member of the Bwiti. I had heard about ibogaine from a clerk at an anarchist bookstore in New York’s East Village. On a magazine assignment, I went to Gabon and took iboga in an initiation ceremony. It was one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, experiences of my life. I had heard the substance described as “10 years of psychoanalysis in a single night,” but of course, I did not believe it. As the African tribesmen played deafening drums and sang around me until dawn, I lay on the temple’s concrete floor and journeyed back through the entire course of my past up to that point, witnessing forgotten scenes from childhood. The experience lasted more than 20 hours. At one point, I was shown my habitual overuse of alcohol and the effect it was having on my relationships, my writing and my psyche. When I returned to the U.S., I steadily reduced my drinking to a fraction of its previous level — an adjustment that seems to be permanent.
Last winter, I had the chance to try ibogaine for a second time. I took it at the Ibogaine Association, a clinic in Rosarito, Mexico, just a half-hour’s drive from San Diego, that’s been open for 18 months. I went because I was contacted by a recovering heroin addict who had been inspired to take ibogaine after reading my account of it. Three months after his first treatment in Mexico, he was still clean — after a 12-year dependency. He gave Dr. Martin Polanco, the clinic’s founder, a copy of my book, Breaking Open the Head, and the clinic offered me a free treatment. I was curious to see how the iboga experience differed when it was removed from its tribal context. My new friend wanted to take it again to reinforce the effect. We went down together.
Polanco estimates that his clinic has treated nearly 200 addicts since it opened. About a third of its patients have managed to stay clean; many have returned for a second treatment. “Ibogaine needs to be much more widely available,” he says. “We still have a lot to learn about how to administer it, how to work with it.” Polanco plans to set up several nonprofit clinics, including one for Mexican addicts who cannot afford the price for foreigners. “This is something that should be nonprofit,” he says. “After all, it is a plant. It came up from the earth. It does give you some guidance. It shows you how you really are.” He chuckles. “That can be scary.”
Randy Hecken, a 27-year-old former heroin addict, drove us from San Diego to the Ibogaine Association. Randy had kicked the habit after two ibogaine treatments at the clinic, and he was now working for the association, going around to local methadone centers with fliers, keeping in contact with former patients. The first treatment costs $2,800, including an initial medical exam and several days’ convalescence afterward, but subsequent visits are only $600 — and it seems that most addicts need at least two doses of ibogaine to avoid relapsing.
The Ibogaine Association is in a quiet, dignified house overlooking the Pacific, decorated with Huichol yarn paintings and Buddhist statues. Polanco gave me a medical examination and a test dose of the drug. Twenty minutes after ingesting the test dose, I started to feel nervous and lightheaded. As I took the other pills — a gel-capped extract of the root-bark powder — I realized I was in for a serious trip.
The nurse led me back to my room. My head already spinning, I lay back on the bed as she hooked me up to an EKG machine and headphones playing ambient music that calmed me down from a sudden attack of panic: Why was I doing this again? Ibogaine is no pleasure trip. It not only causes violent nausea and vomiting, but many of the “visions” it induces amount to a painful parading of one’s deepest faults and moral failings. I had a loud, unpleasant buzzing in my ears — probably the Bwiti pound on drums throughout the ceremony to overwhelm this noise. With my eyes closed, I watched as images started to emerge like patterns out of TV static. I saw a black man in a 1940s-looking suit. He was holding the hand of a 5-year-old girl and leading her up some stairs. I understood that the girl in the vision was me, and the man represented the spirit of iboga. He was going to show me around his castle.
This kind of encounter with a seeming “spirit of iboga” is a typical vision produced by the Bwiti sacrament. In many accounts, people describe meeting a primordial African couple in the jungle. Sometimes the iboga spirit manifests as a “ball of light” that speaks to the baanzi, saying, “Do you know who I am? I am the Chief of the World, I am the essential point!” Part of my trip took the form of an interview that was almost journalistic. I could ask direct questions of “Mr. Iboga” and receive answers that were like emphatic, telegraphed shouts inside my head — even in my deeply stoned state, I managed to scrawl down many of the responses in my notebook.
I asked Mr. Iboga what iboga was. I was told simply:
“PRIMORDIAL WISDOM TEACHER OF HUMANITY!”
Later, my personal faults and lazy, decadent habits were replayed for me in detail. When I asked what I should do, the answer was stern and paternal:
“GET IT STRAIGHT NOW!”
This ideal of straightness, uprightness, kept returning during the trip — a meaningful image for me, as I suffer from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. When other faults were shown to me that seemed rather petty and insignificant, I tried to protest that some of these things really didn’t matter. Iboga would have none of it, insisting:
Iboga told me that I had no idea of the potential significance of even the smallest actions. I reviewed some events in my life and my friends’ lives that seemed bitterly unfair. Yet in this altered state, I felt I could sense a karmic pattern behind all of them, perhaps extending back to previous incarnations. Iboga affirmed this, dictating:
“GOD IS JUST!”
Delivered with great force and minimalist precision, these insights might have been manifestations of my own mind, but they seemed like the voice of an “other.” Generally, I never think in such direct terms about “God,” and “primordial wisdom teacher” is not my syntax.
During the night, I had numerous visions and ponderous metaphysical insights. I seemed to fly through the solar system and into the sun, where winged beings were spinning around the core at a tremendous rate. Up close, they looked like the gold-tinged angels in early-Renaissance paintings. At one point, I thought of humans as an expression of the “Gaian Mind,” the Earth’s sensory organs and self-reflective capacities, at the planet’s present state of development. If we are changing quickly right now, I considered, it is only because the Earth has entered an accelerated phase of transformation, forcing a fast evolution in human consciousness.
The loud buzzing sound that ibogaine produced seemed to be something like a dial tone, as if the alkaloid was in itself a device for communicating on a different frequency from the usual one. Thinking of my girlfriend and our child, I realized that I was lucky — “YOU ARE LUCKY!” Iboga echoed. I felt tremendous, tearful gratitude that I had been given a chance to live and love, to explore and try to understand so many things.
As I do so often these days, I pondered the terrible state of the world — wars and terrors and environmental ruin. I saw sheets of radioactive flame devouring cities, huge crowds reduced to cinders. I asked Mr. Iboga if this was going to be the tragic fate of humanity. The answer I received was startling — and reassuring:
“EVERYTHING IS SAFE IN GOD’S HANDS!”
This message has stayed with me; it has alleviated much paranoia and anxiety. While tripping, I decided that Mr. Iboga was a form of enlightenment, like a Buddha, who had chosen a different form, as a plant spirit rather than human teacher, to work with humanity, imparting a cosmic message of “tough love.” I asked if Iboga would consider incarnating as a person, and the answer I got was, basically, “ALREADY DID THAT!” — implying that, in some previous cycle, he had passed through the perilous stages of evolution we are now navigating. I also came away from this trip with the suspicion that iboga was the original inspiration for the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” in the biblical tale. The plant’s placement in equatorial Africa, cradle of humanity, would support this idea, as well as its sobering moral rectitude. The “good and evil” iboga reveals is not abstract but deeply personal and rooted in the character of the individual.
Late in the night, I retched and vomited out bitter root-bark residue. I put on a CD of African drumming. Closing my eyes, I watched a group of smiling Bwiti women dance around a jungle bonfire. After that, the visions died down, although it was impossible to sleep until late the next night.
My friend in recovery had a less visionary experience than mine. His faults were also paraded in front of him in repetitive loops that seemed endless. At one point, I heard him scream out, “No! No! No!” He saw a possible future for himself if he went back on heroin — becoming a dishwasher, sinking into dissolute old age with a bad back and paunch. He asked what he could do to help save the world. He was told:
“CLEAN UP YOUR ROOM!”
Meditating on his experience, my friend quipped, “ibogaine is God’s way of saying: ‘You’re mine, bitch!’”
Daniel Pinchbeck www.breakingopenthehead.com is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism.