[Ibogaine] Inside the Ibogaine Underground
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Sun Dec 16 20:28:14 EST 2012
Inside the Ibogaine Underground
It was November 5, the night before the presidential election, and The Simpsons was on TV when Seth, a 40-year-old Asian-American opiate addict, began puking in my bathroom.
He had been hanging around for a few hours, letting himself get “as ill as I can stand,” because he had been told that the Ibogaine would be more effective that way. Dragging himself back to the living room, he curled into a ball on the floor and gazed up at the TV listlessly. But he was confident that relief—in the form of 40 large gel caps, filled with “Iboga Root Bark”—was lined up in a neat row atop my kitchen counter.
“I think I’m ready to start taking them, man,” he said in a low voice.
Seth, a 20-year heroin addict, had been talking to me about taking Ibogaine to break his heroin addiction for months. But it would have to be in an underground setting because Ibogaine is a regulated as a controlled I substance; according to the DEA, it has high abuse potential, no medical benefit and high risk. He had heard about several moonlight Ibogaine operations that had popped up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Having been off opiates for five years thanks to a slow steady methadone reduction I was curious about the reality behind the rumors that had swirled around Ibogaine over the years.
Seth said he felt trapped by the “bureaucratic harassment” at the methadone clinic he visited nearly every day. After spending almost half his life on opiates, taking yet another one was grinding him down.
All his other friends had backed off the Ibogaine set-up after hearing what it might entail. He would say, “Basically, you’ll have to watch me for eight hours while I’m peaking,” an understatement of the time involved. Finally, realizing that he had nowhere else to go, I agreed to let him self-administer the Ibogaine at my apartment with the proviso that if something went wrong I would call EMS. There was no turning back. I was about to become a reluctant “guide” for my friend’s Ibogaine trip.
It wasn’t easy to find a source of Ibogaine. One afternoon we walked over to the Yippie Museum Café in downtown Manhattan. In the late '90s and early aughts, when I had lived a block away, the café’s founder, A. J. Weberman, had been dedicated to the popularization of Ibogaine as an addiction-curbing wonder drug. But the café had recently gotten state funding and the old Ibogaine displays had been replaced by stacks of Occupy-type literature.
Realizing he had nowhere else to go, I reluctantly agreed to let him self-administer the Ibogaine at my apartment.
After spending weeks chasing down a rumor about a nurse in Brooklyn who was administering Ibogaine for several hundred bucks a treatment, Seth learned she was out of business. As lead after lead petered out, he became increasingly pessimistic.
Then Seth discovered the Silk Road—the notorious stealth web bazaar for all things drug related—where there are Ibogaine vendors by the dozens. (Ibogaine is unregulated in Canada and Mexico, the sources of many US imports of the drug.) He bought $300 worth from a source that looked legit. It arrived in the mail several weeks later, and he let it sit in his drawer for another month. Then in October Seth he lost his job, bought a ticket to Maui, Hawaii, and needed the promised quick fix for real.
Even assuming that this batch of untested, unregulated brownish substance was as advertised—“Iboga root bark high power”—and not, say, dried leaves and beetle-dung mixed with strychnine, I had no guidelines for assisting him. What little I had read online and gleaned from hearsay could best be summed up as “Stay calm, take [the patient’s] pulse every hour and hope for the best.” But I kept my worries to myself.
One of the more legible communications he had received from his anonymous Italian connection was the following cheat sheet:
“The dosage is calculated in milligrams per body weight.
• Max 10 mg/kg to facilitate analysis and personal growth (high average power)
• 20 mg/kg for disruption of addiction (very strong power)
• 33.5 mg/kg total intake of Ibogaine in Bwiti rituals (exaggerated power).”
We agreed that we weren’t aiming to hold a Bwiti ritual.
Seth and I had re-checked “the math” dozens of times between us. And each time the body-weight to Ibogaine ratio had yielded the same “magic number” of milligrams that promised to wipe Seth’s body clean of addiction in 48 to 72 hours.
The sight of the 40 large gel caps, which he would need to take within four hours to absorb his requisite dose, was jitter inducing. I wanted to make sure he didn’t just start throwing back these mystery horse capsules like Vitamin C. Handing him one, I said, “Those pills are pretty big, why don’t you start with a third of one?”
Seth readily agreed, prying apart one of the gel caps with an unsteady hand and downing a portion of the powder with some water. He was more nervous than he let on. We both sat in my living room watching TV, waiting to see what, if any, the effects would be. Ten minutes later he popped up excitedly. “My withdrawals are practically gone!” he said, taking a deep breath.
After taking two at once and still only experiencing positive effects, Seth began taking the gel caps in earnest as suggested by his Italian connection’s email—four per hour. During the first couple of hours he was able to sit on the couch comfortably watching the Big Lebowski while sipping water. He began “seeing trails.” At a certain point he said, “My mind is drifting off but it’s not a bad feeling.” When he could no longer focus on TV, he went and lay down in my room. His pulse was low but steady, and so far I was impressed that he had none of the outward signs of a person who was kicking dope.
Ibogaine’s preeminent apostle, Howard Lotsof, told of his own deliverance from a degenerate junkie to an enlightened nonaddicted guru through the miracle of one Ibogaine dose. By the time I first read this tale in the 1990s, it was already part of the counter-culture mythology. Lotsof eats the Ibogaine, visits his psychiatrist in the West Village, and during the session his positive associations around heroin transform to intimations of death; later, after an intensely visual trip he goes to bed exhausted and wakes refreshed to find his craving for heroin is…nil. In this telling, the drug was The Cure.
But read the fine print. By his own frequent retellings, he was “a very young addict,” 19—with a five-month habit—when he was set free by Ibogaine way back in 1962. More troubling perhaps was Lotsof’s revelation that he only stayed clean for “around three and a half years,” at which time he “got re-addicted, and got on a methadone program.” This information was somehow omitted from Lotsof’s obituary in The New York Times in 2010.
Whether or not Lotsof was eventually able to wean himself off methadone remains murky. But the logical question is, if the Ibogaine actually reversed his heroin addiction, why didn’t he “re-cure” himself with the drug when he relapsed? (The fact that Lotsof’s company, NDA International, theoretically owned the US patent to Ibogaine in the 1990s, when he was busy lobbying for clinical trials on the way to FDA approval, raises additional questions.)
The hours limped by, only punctuated by Seth periodically popping out of the door to take his pills “as prescribed,” or me going to check on him. Mostly he stared towards the candle-lit wall and listened to surprisingly syrupy ballads on repeat. The visual patterns he was seeing on the wall consisted of “lots of lights,” reminding him of “a giant game of Tetris.”
A while later, still straight on his back, he voiced his first complaint: “It feels like these light trails will never end."
Seth had gotten through most of the dose when his motor coordination went completely haywire. He needed help being guided into the bathroom. When he staggered out he worried that his pupils “looked really strange.” He asked me to take his pulse, which was still steady. With an edge in his voice, he said, “I hope this doesn’t just keep getting worse.”
I fed Seth a combination of Xanax and Seroquel that he had brought along in case the trip got too hairy. An hour later, somewhat sedated and steady, Seth took his last scheduled dose. He had taken 32 pills in less than eight hours.
A few hours later: “Arggghhhh!”—a long groan from my room. I rushed inside. “What’s the matter, man?” I asked. “I feel like my legs are on fire,” he said. Now that the Ibogaine was wearing off, Seth’s withdrawals seemed to be coming back twofold.
Some advocates liken underground Ibogaine providers to those rebels who ran the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.
It was 8 p.m. when Steve half-crawled out of my room—a pale, weak specimen—plunked himself down on a chair and said what had probably been on his mind for hours: “Dude, if I don’t get some dope I’m going to be stuck here. I have absolutely no energy, I can’t move, my legs hurt so much.” I was a little pissed off. “You’re not even going to give the Ibogaine—this great miracle—another chance?” I asked.
As an ex-junkie, I had heard plenty of talk like that, mainly from my own mouth. Besides, I was worried that with the sedatives in his system, and a reduced tolerance via the Ibogaine, there was a real chance he could OD. “We’ll just have to make sure I’m extra careful,” he said.
Soon a white middle-aged dealer from Bushwick was ringing my bell. Barely raising his head from the pillow, Seth snorted one of the bags and almost instantly went into a deep sleep. After checking his pulse, I took the remaining two he had bought and put them in his bag in the front closet.
Two hours later he was up and eating oatmeal, talking about the election results. He was packed up and gone soon after.
Ibogaine does have allies in the medical establishment, even in the US, where it is usually dismissed. The prime American defender is NYU-affiliated psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Alper, who frequently collaborated with Lotsof on academic studies of the drug’s usage and fatalities. In Lotsof’s Times obituary, Alper advocated Ibogaine treatment for opiate-dependent populations, even if the users had to go it alone.
Online literature from the Dora Weiner Foundation, a group dedicated to the continuation of Lotsof’s legacy, likens underground Ibogaine providers to those rebels who ran the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Such high-minded—if seductive—rhetoric notwithstanding, the question of just how far patients should go to make decisions about their own healthcare—even to the point of breaking the law—is a serious one.
During the early years of the AIDS crisis, when neither the government nor private industry was bothering to look for treatments, desperate gay men—watching themselves and their partners waste away—imported experimental treatments from outside the country and distributed them via a network of “buyers clubs.” Doctors sympathetic to the community sometimes risked their careers to administer these promising (or not), mostly untested compounds, some of which were dangerous. Although operating outside the law, the buyers clubs were tolerated by the FDA because of pressure from the community.
The idea that people with a life-threatening illness have the right to access unapproved treatments—even risky ones—has gained credibility, although it remains controversial. Doctors, for one, are split on it. Addicts currently cannot become members of this special club. But should they, especially given the lamentable absence of effective drug treatments? The answer may depend on the answer to the question, is addiction a life-threatening illness? There is a slow trend among experts toward yes. But to force the issue, addicts would have to turn their despair into action. And that may require a turnaround that leads to recovery anyway.
As for Seth, he called me last week from Maui to thank me and tell me that so far, he was still clean. "The Ibogaine was the best thing I've ever done," he said.
Matt Harvey is an award-winning freelance journalist whose writing has appeared on AnimalNY.com, Black Book, the New York Post and the New York Press among other publications. He lives in Manhattan.
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