By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall
The psychedelic drug ibogaine is used to treat drug addiction and alcoholism in more than 190 countries, including Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Russia, China and Ukraine. Sixty years of research has demonstrated ibogaine’s effectiveness in opiate, cocaine, amphetamine, nicotine and alcohol dependency, as well as treatment resistant post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet owing to the ludicrous and ineffectual “War on Drugs,” ibogaine remains illegal in the US.
It’s an issue of special relevance to veterans, who suffer a high rate of combat-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction disorders. Twenty percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans develop PTSD or depression, with 22 a day, on average, committing suicide. Veterans wounded in Middle East conflicts have a 25-35% chance of becoming addicted to prescription opiates.
Conventional treatment for these disorders is associated with a high failure rate, translating into long term disability and suffering for many vets. International peer reviewed research shows that addicts treated with ibogaine have lower relapse rates than those receiving conventional treatment. Yet thanks to the federal government’s absolute ban on so-called “hallucinogenic” drugs, veterans wanting help for treatment resistant addiction disorders and PTSD must seek out private igobaine clinics in Mexico, Canada and Costa Rica.
Ibogaine Discovered in 1962
Researcher Thomas Kingsley Brown summarizes ibogaine’s history in “Ibogaine in the Treatment of Substance Dependence” in 2013, 6, 2-16 Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2013, 6, 2-16
Extracted for the West African iboga plant, ibogaine’s benefit in opiate addiction was first discovered in 1962 by a heroin addict named Howard Lotsof. Lotsoft was amazed that it totally blocked any symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Like other addicts who have taken it, he experienced no hallucinations. He has described the effect, which lasted approximately 36 hours, as a “waking dream.”
As Brown elaborates in his paper, it’s common for addicts who take ibogaine to experience a mind expanding panoramic review of their life. They describe being flooded with past memories of traumatic or highly emotional experiences, important personal relationships and bad decisions and choices. In Lotsoff’s case, he gained the understanding that his addiction was fear and anxiety-driven and that he could free himself of these feelings.
Lotsof’s Campaign to Legalize Ibogaine
Ibogaine and other psychedelic drugs were still legal in the US in 1962. In the late sixties, it became illegal, along with LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and other hallucinogens. Determined to share his discovery with other addicts, Lotsoff spent years lobbying researchers, public officials, and pharmaceutical companies to study ibogaine’s potential as an addiction interrupter. He got nowhere. Big Pharma has more or less total control over new drug research, and a “natural” substance administered as a single dose has limited profit potential.
In 1986, Lotsof himself patented ibogaine himself for heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol, nicotine, and polysubstance abuse. After forming the private company NDA International, he began working with scientists overseas in setting up both animal and human studies. In the early nineties the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) developed Phase I and II clinical trial protocols for ibogaine. They cancelled the project in 1995 because the Clinton administration felt it was too controversial.
How Ibogaine Works
Studies in rodents reveal that repeated drug and alcohol administration causes changes in gene expression in the ventral tegmental area of the brain. Ibogaine reverses this by increasing Glial Cell Line-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (GDNF) activity.
As Brown and other researchers point out, the drug isn’t a “cure” for addiction. However by eliminating or substantially decreasing withdrawal symptoms, it creates a clear “window of opportunity,” allowing the addict to cognitively choose to take back control of their life.
Ibogaine doesn’t address the behavioral component of addiction. As in mainstream recovery programs, an addict is less likely to relapse if they’re prepared to substitute new positive behaviors for the addictive behaviors. Most need support from aftercare programs, family and friends to achieve this.
Medical Supervision Required
Thomas’s review stresses that ibogaine should only be used under close medical supervision, owing to potentially serious (in some cases lethal) side effects. He also reminds us that these health risks must be weighed against the very real health consequences of chronic addiction (e.g. liver disease, cardiovascular disease, traumatic injury, overdose, malnutrition). The death rate associated with methadone and buprenorphine, the current treatments of choice for heroin addiction, is even higher. In 2005/2006, the annual death rate from methadone poisoning was double that from heroin-related poisoning. In New Zealand, the growing fatality rate from methadone poisoning was part of the rationale for legalizing ibogaine in 2009.
Avoiding Medical Complications with Ibogaine
After decades of international use, the potential medical complications of taking ibogaine are well known, as are the contraindications against taking it. The most common exclusion criteria are pre-existing heart disease, pre-existing bleeding problems or chronic blood clots. No patient should take ibogaine without an electrocardiogram (EKG) to rule out heart problems. Moreover a doctor or nurse (preferably specialized in emergency medicine or cardiology) needs to be present to monitor the patient during the session.
All patients entering an ibogaine treatment center need to undergo a complete medical and psychological screening. If they’re taking drugs that interact adversely with ibogaine, staff at the treatment center need to assist them in safely tapering and discontinuing. Likewise alcoholics need to undergo medical detox prior to taking igobaine.
Our Public Obligation to Veterans
Despite the abundance of excellent US referral sites (www.iceers.org and http://www.myeboga.org/providers.html are the best), it seems terribly wrong to expect veterans with combat related PTSD and addiction disorders to go to Canada or Mexico for help. Even with the 25% discount Ibogalife in Costa Rica offers vets with PTSD, all these conditions have dire financial consequences. Private treatment simple isn’t an option for the vast majority of vets and non-vets struggling with them.
Surely the American public has both a moral and legal obligation to offer effective treatment to veterans with combat related conditions. Yet according to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, not a single VA program or hospital is undertaking ibogaine research. The only free ibogaine studies I could find were in New Zealand (for addiction disorders) and the Bahamas (for US vets with diagnosed PTSD).
Besides being immoral and illegal, it also makes no sense to make taxpayers fund ineffective methadone and buprenorphine maintenance programs – involving years of daily administration of an equally addictive drug – when other countries are having proven success with a safer, less expensive and more effective treatment option. At the very minimum, the VA should be funding ibogaine research through VA hospitals.
This is an absolute disgrace. Obama and Congress need to hear from vets and their families and veterans advocacy groups, as well as taxpayers. In other words, all of us.
The following 2006 video describes the experience of a lieutenant general and Green Beret who underwent treatment with ibogaine. He had become addicted to prescription opiates following a combat-related injury.