Depending upon who is collecting the statistics, there are anywhere between 5,000 to 25,000 regular heroin users in Toronto. Most of these people have one thing in common, they’ve thought about kicking the habit. They may even have tried a couple of times.
Others, like myself, were motivated enough to break the habit on the first try.
There are basically two ways to break a heroin addiction. The user can just stop—go cold turkey—and suffer the physical and emotional hell of withdrawal, or the user can get into a methadone program and swap the heroin habit for a methadone habit. Ibogaine, a non-narcotic, non-addictive drug, could offer up a third option.
Ibogaine comes from a shrub found in the rainforests of western Africa. The people there have used ibogaine for centuries as an upper to help them stay alert when hunting, or for inducing visions during initiation rites. Among the secret societies of Gabon and the Congo, ibogaine is closely associated with death. The plant that produces the drug is often described as a supernatural being which can carry someone away to the realm of the dead. Actual death by overdose is possible, but heavy users usually just slide into a semi-coma while gazing off into space. West African cultists who use the drug believe that during this almost comatose experience the soul leaves the body and wanders around in the land of the dead.
In the early ’60s the drug was introduced to the West as a psychoanalytic tool. Ibogaine is characterized as a hallucinogen, but it doesn’t cause LSD-like hallucinations. Users of the drug claim that they “see” their lives appear as if on a movie screen on their eyelids, or on any surface they focus on. In 1967 ibogaine was officially made illegal in the U.S.
Howard Lotsof, an American heroin addict looking for a new drug experience, tried ibogaine in 1962. Although his first ibogaine high lasted longer than his usual heroin injection interval, he didn’t suffer any withdrawal symptoms. Instead, Lotsof’s craving for heroin disappeared completely. Lotsof gave ibogaine to seven other heroin addicts and five of them quit using heroin after their first ibogaine experience. At the time neither Lotsof nor any of his friends were planning to quit.
Based on his personal experiences, Lotsof decided to promote ibogaine as a potential addiction therapy. He founded NDA (New Drug Application) International and between 1985 and 1989 obtained three patents for drug addiction treatment methods based on ibogaine. NDA claims that ibogaine can beat an addiction in three steps. (Warning! The following is in psych-speak.)
First, the addict’s repressed memories are released. Then the memories are intellectually re-evaluated. Finally, a new understanding of the memories is integrated into the client. Former addicts who have successfully used ibogaine say that they came to understand their drug use patterns and then reached a point when they felt they could choose whether or not to use drugs.
The U.S. government hasn’t pursued ibogaine as a treatment for addiction with much enthusiasm, despite the urgings of AIDS activists, rainforest conservationists, drug policy reformers and drug user advocates. In August 1993 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally gave the University of Miami the go-ahead to conduct clinical trials on volunteer patients. This decision made ibogaine the second psychoactive drug to begin the journey toward FDA approval. MDMA was the first. One surprising thing about the FDA decision is that it followed on the heels of a study conducted by the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, which indicated that high doses of ibogaine could cause brain damage in rats.
The situation is no better in Canada. A spokesperson for Toronto’s Addiction Research Foundation told eye that they weren’t currently investigating ibogaine because there were “other research priorities.” To his knowledge no one was researching ibogaine in Canada.
Ibogaine treatment is available overseas. The International Coalition for Addict Self-Help (ICASH) has developed an underground railroad to assist addicts in getting ibogaine treatment in Europe, primarily in the Netherlands. There, ibogaine reportedly has been successful in breaking addictions to heroin, cocaine, nicotine and alcohol. Nearly one-quarter of all the treated addicts stayed drug- free for at least six months. Another 40 to 50 per cent kicked their habits, but needed help from other support programs to stay on the wagon. Some 20 to 30 per cent went back to using their drugs of choice within a month following ibogaine treatment, while roughly 10 per cent decided they needed further ibogaine treatments to stave off their old cravings. The Dutch experience has also had its share of setbacks. One woman died of a heroin overdose while taking ibogaine and the controversial drug may be linked to other deaths.
Ibogaine has been around for 30 years and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it could be useful in helping people overcome addictions. Why has our government paid so little attention to the drug? Canadian and American national drug strategies have always placed more emphasis on a law enforcement approach rather than on treatment and prevention. Our drug war mentality has made it difficult to imagine a mind-altering drug as being a good thing; just try getting marijuana for medical reasons. It could be that large drug companies don’t see much profit potential in ibogaine. And, as always, there is such a stigma attached to drug addiction that the people with the money and power are reluctant to listen to others with real, front-line experience, the addicts.
There should be a variety of treatment options available to addicts who decide to kick their habits. There may be a place for ibogaine in treatment methodology, but I doubt it’s the magic bullet to end all addictions. When I broke my own heroin habit back in 1991, I went through what treatment experts called “spontaneous recovery.” Everybody else called it going cold turkey. I know other former users who are joined at the hip to doctors and clinics because they’ve succeeded in getting onto a methadone program.
Earlier this year I met Bob Sisko, an activist from New York involved in ICASH. He spoke about ibogaine like a TV evangelist talks about Jesus. He told me that ibogaine doesn’t cure addiction, but puts it in remission. He went on to say that detoxification is the first step in any drug treatment program, and ibogaine allows the addict to detoxify with dignity.
In Toronto it is virtually impossible to kick a drug habit with any dignity. This city, with its thousands of heroin addicts, only has room for about 200 people in its handful of methadone programs. Alcohol detox centres are overcrowded. Barring bad-tasting chewing gum or odd little patches, there’s nothing available to help those who want to quit smoking. People addicted to crack, this decade’s big evil, pretty well have to go it alone when they want to stop using. This is a disgrace.
Sure, there have been problems with ibogaine—it’s probably not a wonder cure. But isn’t it worse to ignore the possibility that a non- narcotic, non-addictive drug like ibogaine could help to eliminate the belief that it’s really a waste of time trying to help an addict? The drug could prove to be an important part of a rational, humane approach to treating the problem of drug abuse. It’s certainly worth trying to find out.