Ibogaine, a brown powder derived from the African Tabernathe iboga plant, has intrigued researchers since 1962, when Howard Lotsof, a student at New York University and an opiate addict, found that a single dose erased his drug cravings without causing any withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, the hallucinogen can increase the risk of cardiac arrest, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency lists it as a Schedule 1 substance, a classification for drugs like ecstasy and LSD with “no known medical value” and “high potential for abuse,” making it difficult to get federal funding to run clinical trials.
Animal tests, however, have shown the drug’s medicinal promise. “Rats addicted to morphine will quit for weeks after receiving ibogaine,” says Stanley Glick, the director of the Center for Neuropharmacology and Neuroscience at Albany Medical College. And addicts have reported positive effects in Mexico and Europe, where ibogaine therapy is legal. “Going cold turkey is horrible. There’s vomiting and diarrhea and pain and a constant drug craving,” says Randy Hencken, a drug user who was treated in Mexico. “After ibogaine, I didn’t feel any symptoms or cravings. I’ve been clean for nine years. Heroin and cocaine no longer have any power over me.”
Despite these successes, ibogaine lacks scientific credibility. “As great as ibogaine seems, no one knows exactly how effective it is as a treatment,” says Valerie Mojieko, the director of clinical research for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS), a privately funded Massachusetts-based nonprofit. So starting this month, MAPS will enlist Clare Wilkins, the director of Pangea Biomedics, to run the first long-term study to gauge the drug’s lasting effects at her clinic in Mexico (where patients already pay $5,000 for the treatment).
Nearly seven million Americans abuse illicit drugs, costing the nation an estimated $181 billion a year in health care, crime and lost productivity.
We certainly need better ways to treat drug addiction. Current methods are helping people. But current methods fail far too often for too many people. The way to find better treatments is to run medical studies and analyze the results.