We have all experienced a time where we may have really craved something. While the craving may have felt intense at the time, it was either satiated through consumption, or self-control was put to the test and eventually the craving was satisfied. Heroin addicts, however, ill continue to crave heroin more after each use, and attempts to quit result in intense withdrawal or a relapse into the addiction, making daily life activities relentlessly challenging.
What if there was some substance that could curb the immediate withdrawal symptoms that heroin addicts, alcoholics or other drug addicts experience? In 1962, Howard Lotsof, a nineteen-year-old college student at the time, found that there was. It was called ibogaine.
Lotsof, an avid drug user, was also interested in examining the therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs. After discovering ibogaine, a hallucinogenic alkaloid powder derived from the bark of a Central West African shrub, Lotsof noticed something incredible. After a several hour trip from it, he no longer experienced withdrawal symptoms from heroin. After administering ibogaine to several of his heroin-addicted friends, he found that they too, no longer suffered withdrawal and were successfully able to abstain from using long-term.
While ibogaine was found to disrupt the harrowing effects of withdrawal in the 60’s, its use predated a century before, as a form of initiation for the Bwiti tribe in Gabon, Africa.
The initiation ceremony consisted of piercing the initiate’s tongue with a long needle, having them ingest iboga, and hitting their skull with a hammer three times to “break open the head” in order to enter the “spirit world.” The visions associated with the large ingestion of the iboga can last for days, in which they are subjected to a dream-like state and experience visions of spirits that will later show up in their dreams. (Breaking Open The Head, by Daniel Pinchbeck)
When ibogaine was later introduced into the western world, it quickly became a Schedule One drug, like marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD.
Recreational use of psychedelics stirred frenzy among government in which the World Health Assembly deemed ibogaine a drug that creates dependence on impairing human health. It became a part of the underground drug trade, but rapidly disappeared as drug lords realized the use of this drug would reduce their clientele, as it curbs the addiction of other drugs. In 1994, Times Magazine published an article on ibogaine with fascinating information, but spelled disaster for future use. The article mentioned a heroin detox study in Holland that used ibogaine, but a young woman died during the study. It was believed that the woman took a dose of heroin before taking ibogaine. Researchers have found that ibogaine can induce a stronger potency of other drugs that are still in a person’s system. It is important for users to have a one-day detox before taking it, which is perhaps why the woman died from an induced overdose of heroin right after ingesting ibogaine.
Administering ibogaine in the United States is illegal without special research permission. However, there are many alternative health clinics around the world like New Zealand and Mexico that use this powerful hallucinogen to help patients who are battling addiction.
Recent research suggests that cardiac related deaths from ibogaine appear to induce cardiac arrhythmias for patients with heart problems, with a mortality rate of 1 in 300. Because ibogaine is so successful in eliminating withdrawal symptoms with any kind of drug addiction, western companies are uninterested in its use due to its weak marketability.
Pharmaceutical companies invest in drugs that focus on maintenance and repeated use, which incur larger profits, unlike ibogaine, which would only require a one-time use for effectiveness.
Howard Lotsof, the nineteen-year old who serendipitously encountered ibogaine, spent the majority of his life advocating for the prescription use of this drug. While it is still illegal in the United States, several research institutions are making strides in understanding the health implications and benefits that accompany this foreign substance. Perhaps one day in the future, the success of ibogaine will rid the world of drug addiction.