Ibogaine Treatment Has Promise for Addiction
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Addiction is a complex biological and psychological affliction. Dr. Gabor Maté has pointed out that our Western model of treatment falls short of adequately addressing the various layers of spiritual and emotional pain that underlie the biological symptoms of addiction. This significant shortfall in our mode of treating addiction is partly due to a precipitous and uninformed classification of many substances as dangerous and without medical purpose. Another among those stigmatized substances is ibogaine, a naturally occurring psychoactive alkaloid produced by the West African shrub Iboga. For years, iboga and its derivative, ibogaine, have been the center of the Bwiti religion, it has been used throughout Africa in healing and initiation ceremonies. Because of its label as a schedule I drug, investigation into the potential of ibogaine in treating and healing heroin addiction has been hindered. However, over the years, a mountain of anecdotal evidence has pointed to the fact that ibogaine has something to offer in the field of psychology and addiction treatment. This anecdotal evidence seems to have had a strong enough effect so as to prompt at least two academic studies into ibogaine and treatment of heroin addiction. Although a lot more studies such as these are required to state with conviction the potential benefits of ibogaine in treating addiction, these initial results serve as a call for more inquiry.
Howard Lotsof and Dimitri Mugianis
One of the first indications that ibogaine could be part of an effective treatment for addiction occurred by chance. In 1962, Howard Lotsof, a heroin addict in search of a different high, tried ibogaine. Surprisingly, “he found that he was able to quit using heroin afterward.” Lotsof went on to dedicate much of his life’s efforts to press for scientific research on ibogaine’s potential as an opiate addiction treatment. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, Lotsof began collaborating with a Dutch psychiatrist to develop an ibogaine-assisted therapy program. Out of 30 addicts they treated, two thirds were able to abstain from opiate use “for periods ranging from four months to four years.” If these study results are true –and we need much more research to confirm them- then this is a rather significant increase in healing addiction compared to the average relapse rate of 75% with conventional forms of treatment.
Lotsof is not the only former addict to herald ibogaine as an effective healing tool. Dimitri Mugianis, also from New York, attests to the power of ibogaine by citing his own twenty year addiction to heroin and attributes his opiate abstention to the psychoactive substance. Since kicking his own habit with ibogaine, he also found purpose in helping others find healing through the use of ibogaine. Mugianis began acting as a kind of shaman and guide for other New York heroin addicts –conducting healing sessions in hotel rooms. As a result, in 2001 he was convicted of a felony and was no longer able to provide ibogaine to many of the people he seeks to help rid of addiction. However, he has travelled several times to Gabon, where he was initiated into the Bwiti religion and continues to employ the religion’s “healing technologies of music and dance” to relieve heroin users in the Unites States. Mugianis describes what he envisions to be a more open, effective way of treating heroin addiction by combining African ceremonial healing with the pragmatic character of western medicine. An ibogaine-assisted addiction therapy treatment would be a “ceremonial detox” that will integrate “shamanistic ritual with the safety afforded by a western medical staff.” Aside from Ibogaine’s classification as a schedule I drug, Mugianis cites several other reasons ibogaine has not been further studied, among them is that it may not be profitable to pharmaceutical companies because it is natural and thus cannot be patented.
Observational Studies in Mexico and New Zealand
One study was conducted in an ibogaine clinic in Baja California, Mexico by Dr. Tom Kingsley Brown of the University of California, San Diego, and Valerie Mojeiko of MAPS. The main objective of the study was to determine the efficacy of ibogaine-assisted therapy “in producing extended periods of opiate drug-use abstinence,” in reducing the general use of heroin, and in assuaging the negative impacts of harmful behaviors that result as a consequence of addiction. The study also sought to gauge whether ibogaine-assisted therapy prompted a significant reduction in symptoms of depression as well as whether it caused positive changes in emotional intelligence. Researchers found that monitored ibogaine-assisted therapy lacked any real risks or adverse effects. Out of 30 study participants, one third relapsed within the first month after treatment and only four out of 30 abstained from heroin use for more than one year after a single treatment. Although this may seem like a low success rate, there are many other factors that show that ibogaine-assisted therapy is absolutely worth further study. Many study participants reported that their ibogaine-assisted therapy sessions allowed them insight into the deep-seated reasons why they abused drugs in the first place. In a similar vein, participants also reported experiencing a profound “sense of amazement, sense of passing through stages of evolution.” These reports point to a form of deep spiritual introspection that is likely the root of the insight into why one finds palliative solace from pain in drugs such as heroin. The recognition of one’s small place in the universe, shown in relief because of the ability of ibogaine to show the infinite essence of one’s soul, is an awesome healing tool. This forms part of what the study calls “emotional intelligence,” and explains why it is important to measure in studies that seek to heal or treat heroin addiction.
The study in New Zealand was conducted by Dr. Geoff Noller and sought to create a distinguishable model of heroin addiction treatment that takes into account recent changes in drug policy. The study points to the clinical relevance of ibogaine by citing an article that attributes ibogaine with effects such as revisiting and re-framing repressed memories and the integration of that new insight into the personalities of the study participants. In 2010, the law regarding the use of ibogaine changed in New Zealand. Mounting anecdotal and scientific evidence continued to show that ibogaine has a very low potential for abuse or recreational use, the mortality rate and adverse effects were lower than with methadone treatment, and in studies conducted in mice, ibogaine proved to reduce painful withdrawals. Informed by this evidence, the law changed to allow further clinical research into ibogaine-assisted therapy.
This is good news for many reasons, one of which is the purpose behind Noller’s study. Noller’s team seeks to develop a comprehensive, holistic treatment that includes support programs and “peer-staffed” needle exchanges–making rehabilitation through understanding and compassion the basis of healing as opposed to stigmatization of drug addiction. The change in the law makes ibogaine available for prescription, thus calling for the development of teams of support to help heroin addicts overcome through strong relationships with a supportive medical team of doctors and psychologists.
The example of New Zealand illustrates a positive shift in the way global society chooses to face addiction. Legalizing ibogaine is only a small part of the entire project of helping a patient overcome addiction, but it is an integral first step to developing effective treatment –one that reaches to the emotional and psychological roots of dependency and addiction. Heroin is notoriously very difficult to shake once someone begins to use it to fill a personal void, a fact corroborated by its high relapse rates with conventional treatment. Healing and helping many members of our society is the main focus of ibogaine-assisted therapy.
The Ibogaine Therapy Session
The website Choose Help provides an outline of what commonly occurs during an ibogaine-assisted therapy session for addiction treatment. There are several phases brought on by the effects of the drug and each imparts something of value and benefit to the addiction-healing process. The “trip” lasts anywhere from sixteen to 24 hours and some have broken it down to the following three sections: an initial dream-like state in which one experiences hallucinations –many of which are directly reminiscent of personal memories. The next is labeled the evaluative stage because many report it as a time in which they heavily reflect on the memories that re-surfaced in the dream-like state. What follows is known as the “stimulation phase,” commonly reported as the most unpleasant aspect of ibogaine –and the reason why ibogaine is considered to have such a low risk of habit forming or addiction. The previous two studies, especially the one in New Zealand which illustrates a noble desire to develop comprehensive ibogaine-assisted addiction treatment, are wonderful first steps in creating a kinder approach to treating drug addiction. If we take the perspective of Dr. Gabor Maté, among many others, that deep emotional pain is at the base of all addictive and self-destructive behaviors, then we can both change global drug policy and begin the exciting project of developing thorough and effective treatment for our friends and loved ones that may be suffering needlessly.
- Sofia Vidal
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