Ibogaine: The Addiction “Cure-All” That Can Also Kill You

Ibogaine: The Addiction “Cure-All” That Can Also Kill You

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There have been quite a few studies throughout the years as well as plenty of anecdotal stories about psychedelics being used as doorway to a spiritual experience that can help alcoholics stop drinking. Bill Wilson himself experimented with LSD! Of course, sometimes those things that sound too good to be true are.

Drawing a conclusion about any of this, however, isn’t so simple and the recent death of 33-year-old Brodie Smith sheds new light on the controversial treatment. Smith, who was undergoing Ibogaine treatment to free him from a methamphetamine addiction, had shelled out $5,300 for a four-day regimen on the Thai island of Koh Phangan. He died on the first day after having first written his mother that Ibogaine (a naturally occurring psychoactive compound which comes from a West African shrub which is used in religious “rebirthing” ceremonies) had a “92 percent” success rate.

The Smith Story 

The details surrounding Smith’s death are pretty sketchy. There are conflicting reports as to whether his death was a result of ingesting the Ibogaine (what his girlfriend attests) or from a narcotic-induced heart attack (as his death certificate states).

Smith was not the first person linked to the controversial treatment; a 45 year-old woman died while undergoing Ibogaine treatment for morphine addiction in New Zealand in July of 2013, although the coroner’s report had not been issued as of November of this year.

How Ibogaine Works 

Ibogaine is a hallucinogen that has been studied as a treatment for opiate, methamphetamine and other drug addictions for decades. Taken in pill form, it puts users in a “dream-like state” (that lasts for up to a full day) and produces visions that both allow them to gain insight into their addiction and to overcome fears. It also helps with withdrawal symptoms and is said to reduce cravings for up to six months, according to its proponents. Also, let’s be real: it certainly sounds like a lot more fun than kicking dope on a couch or in a hospital detox.

Because of severe side effects—including hallucinations, seizures, fatal heart arrhythmia and brain damage in patients with “other” health problems—Ibogaine has been illegal in the US since the 1960s, and has been classified as a Schedule I substance. As a result, there haven’t been a lot of clinical studies until lately, and those have been peer-reviewed and performed on relatively small populations. Still, the early reports are fairly positive.

The Studies

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a US non-profit research organization that sounds like a spoof from a 60’s movie, has conducted trials in Mexico and is currently doing another set of them in New Zealand. If the results are to be believed, the drug has the potential to be valuable tool for helping addicts recover.

In the first study, they took 30 opiate addicts and gave them a single treatment; without any aftercare program, four of the subjects were clean after a year while a third of the subjects relapsed within the first month and 60 percent relapsed by the second month. Still, a half dozen subjects (20 percent) made it six months without a relapse and five of those six didn’t utilize any aftercare program. Eleven of the 14 subjects involved in the New Zealand studies have completed the treatment and of those, five have remained opioid free a full year after treatment. Overall, half the participants in the study were expected to remain opioid free at 12 months, according to researchers.

The Drawbacks to the Study, and Oh Yeah, the Deaths

Something to take into consideration, however, is that the relapses are self-reported, which is to say that the addicts are the ones presenting the evidence of their clean time. And as anyone who spends any time around opiate addicts will tell you, truth telling is not their strong suit.

The other problem is that people die from the treatment in much higher proportion than other treatments. According to the MAPS website, “Ibogaine use has a mortality rate of about 1 in 300. Deaths from ibogaine have been attributed to bradycardia (slowing of the heart), lethal combinations with other substances, liver problems and other conditions.” So maybe that stay in the cushy rehab center for your dope problem isn’t such a bad idea after all?

In the End

As I said, it’s difficult to come to any conclusions here. The people at MAPS recognize that Ibogaine is “not a cure, not a ‘magic bullet’ and refer to the treatment as an “addiction interrupter.”

I say that if they can augment the initial bang the treatment gives you with some aftercare program, the addicts can get the best of both worlds and have higher chances of staying clean. If you’re someone who believes (as I do) that some sort of psychic change is helpful in changing addictive behaviors in hard case addiction, why not take a look at every possible angle?

Also, as Smith’s family can surely attest, proceed with Ibogaine at your own risk.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.