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Ibogaine Hits Mainstream TV

In a recent episode of the CIA drama Homeland, a character withdrew from heroin addiction with the use of ibogaine, and the depiction was surprisingly accurate. The Fix digs a little deeper.

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The Saul Withdrawal Photo: Homeland

By Brent McCluskey

12/12/13

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On a recent episode of Showtime’s Emmy Award Winning series, Homeland, a powerful yet obscure psychedelic called ibogaine was used to quickly detox a CIA operative from heroin. While the side effects were pretty nasty, it did work. But how accurately did the CIA drama actually portray the purported miracle drug and what does real research have to say about it?

In a scene reminiscent of a detox nightmare, the camera turns to Sgt. Nicholas Brody, who is in a very bad state. Brody—a Marine turned terrorist who now works for the CIA—was shaking, sweating, and completely oblivious to his surroundings. Homeland’s CIA director Saul Berenson only had six days before his window of opportunity for an upcoming mission closed, and he needed Brody to be ready. Berenson turned for help to a trusted contemporary and fellow CIA operative, Dar Adal, who had a handy alternative that could allegedly kick Brody’s heroin detox and get him up to speed in the allotted time.

“Ibogaine,” Dar suggested in the episode. “A drug based on a Nigerian plant. It dramatically accelerates the withdrawal process, and kills the addiction.”

“The side effects are brutal, which is why it’s outlawed here,” said Yousef Turani, the Navy SEAL medic responsible for Brody’s wellbeing.

According to the show, the side effects of the drug are nausea, vomiting and “violent, mind-bending hallucinations.” But allegedly, it works. And to them, that was all that mattered.

All drugs have side effects, but ibogaine is unique for the severity of its side effects

Once the drug was administered, it was a special form of hell for Brody as the side effects quickly set in. After hallucinating that he was chatting with a fellow Marine, Brody went berserk and destroyed a wooden chair that was in his room. Using a shard of the splintered wood, he vigorously stabbed his arm multiple times. Ouch.

Saul and others quickly rushed in to save Brody from himself and after subduing the ibogaine fueled maniac, they injected him with an undisclosed sedative and he fell fast asleep. Upon awakening, Brody was groggy. Drained. But, as promised, he was clean with no trace of heroin. So how does this fictitious scene line up with reality?

According to nearly a decade of research from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, aside from a few details, the sequence from Homeland was surprisingly authentic.

Ibogaine, found in the root of the West African shrub Tabermanthe Iboga, is a Schedule I restricted drug with very low potential for abuse that has been used by members of the Bwiti religion for ritualistic purposes for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. In Africa, Ibogaine is viewed as a reorienting spiritual experience in which many of the negative habits, coding and programs of behavior and thought housed in a person's brain and overall neural net are wiped clean by the power of the medicine. In their place, the journeyer is given a vision of the divine underpinning of life and the universe so powerful as to eradicate one's fear of ego or physical obliteration and one's sense of separation from others and from the creative love source of all existence. Having had this experience, and with the body now capable again of producing normal positive neurotransmitters such as dopamine, the need for pain release and mitigating pleasure that drives addiction is no longer a factor.

Ibogaine started gaining traction as an anti-addiction drug in the U.S. back in 1962 when rumors of its power quickly began to spread. Howard S. Lotsof, a 19 year old New York based heroin addict, discovered that 30 hours after ingesting the substance he had no signs of withdrawal and no desire for another fix. Lotsof was sold on ibogaine’s effectiveness at interrupting addiction and started promoting it by authoring various research papers. Over 20 years later, in 1985, he was awarded several patents and got to work on clinical tests.

But Lotsof’s experience wasn’t an anomaly. In fact, it was pretty much the norm. For approximately 90% of subjects who have taken a single dose of ibogaine, the detox process is relatively painless and symptoms of withdrawal from heroin, methadone, cocaine and alcohol are greatly reduced. The drug has also been found to act quickly--even as fast as 12 hours after its use.

A lesser percentage of those who have taken the drug, approximately 60%, report that after taking ibogaine, their desire to use again is virtually non-existent for a period of time between one week and three months.

An even narrower margin of subjects who have taken ibogaine, approximately 30%, reported gaining profound insights into the root causes of their addictions, allowing them to understand why they use and giving them the power to abstain from drugs for extended periods of time.

While ibogaine is technically a psychedelic drug, a more accurate description of the powerful hallucinogenic effects would be oneirophrenia, a dream-like state that clouds the consciousness. Those in an oneirophrenic state typically experience it lying down and partially awake, and say it is like watching a movie of their own life.

However, only approximately 75% report visual hallucinations after ingesting ibogaine. The other 25% either have very rapidly occurring and jumbled thoughts, see flashing or pulsing lights, or simply sleep through the entire ordeal. However, the addiction interrupting properties still work on these patients.

Some, like Deborah Mash, a PhD neuroscientist at the University of Miami Medical Center, believe ibogaine’s ability to interrupt addiction long-term is due to the way the body metabolizes it. Mash surmises that ibogaine is a short-acting prodrug that, after being converted to noribogaine, stays in the body for so long that she has been unable to effectively measure its half-life.

But with the miracle of fast-acting drug detox and long-lasting benefits comes a huge drawback: side effects. There’s the nausea, blood pressure problems, ataxia, bradycardia, vomiting, and of course, the severe nightmarish hallucinations. Researchers have proven over and over that the drug does work, but that’s not the problem. For some, the side effects have even led to death.

Since 2007, there have been at least 12 deaths related to ibogaine trials. Some researchers believe the number may be substantially higher as deaths pertaining to non-clinical usage likely wouldn’t have been recorded.

Dr. Kenneth Alper, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, examined the fatalities and found that while each patient died with ibogaine in their system, preexisting heart conditions and surreptitious opioid use during the trials was the cause of death.

“It’s knowing who to treat and who not to treat,” says Alper. “None of the [fatalities] appear to have involved a healthy individual without pre-existing disease who didn’t use other drugs during treatment. Two deaths occurred when they took ibogaine in crude alkaloid or root-bark form – they didn’t know what they were taking or how much.”

Every drug has side effects, but according to Dr. Dorit Ron, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, ibogaine is in a league of its own.

"All drugs have side effects, but ibogaine is unique for the severity of its side effects," says Dr. Ron. "I think ibogaine is a nasty drug. But if you can disassociate the side effects from the good effects, there is a mechanism of action in ibogaine that reduces relapse in humans."

But even with the risky side effects, those looking to kick the habit continue to seek out international clinics or underground providers that will treat them with the wonder-drug. Some have even travelled across the globe to experience the ibogaine-induced psychological insights into their addiction.

“Words simply cannot describe the experience, yet it's this experience that has given me a better perspective of who I am, and dealing with the 'bigger picture,’’’ says one addict who received ibogaine treatments in Canada. “My diet is better, I am working out more, I am getting along better with friends/family. Most importantly I have no cravings! I still have work to do, I still have that obsessive impulsive side to me, but now I am better able to pause, and see it for what it is.”

Another ibogaine user explains his interaction with the powerful hallucinogen and recounts his spiritual experience and moment of enlightenment:

“During the 4 hours of visions I felt physically well and somewhat spiritually elated,” says the ibogaine user. “I did not feel any attachment to the occurring visions. They came and went, without any particular meaning for me. I was just witnessing and letting go. Occasionally I transcended the visionary level to be overwhelmed by the "void" beyond, which is what really and unavoidably attracts me. I noticed my breath stop for long periods of time, both on the out and in stroke, while I felt melting with the all pervading void, sliding gently into death...I then also realized that I have long achieved all that there is on the inner journey, that I have purified body and mind long enough. That I have had all the revelations, teachings and trainings necessary to fully live my perfect imperfection in the world. And this was my main realization: that there is no excuse but to ACT IN THE WORLD.”

Objectively speaking, ibogaine has proven to make detox significantly easier, but the subjective and often spiritualized aspect that so many have spoken of varies from user to user. After decades of trying to understand how ibogaine affects the brain, pharmacologists have realized it is an exceedingly unique drug. And according to Alper, it effects “every neurotransmitter system we know about.”

So with the largely accurate portrayal on Homeland, and drug policy reform movements all over our nation, should we expect to see a resurgence of ibogaine trials in the United States any time soon?

(Editor Note—Most Americans seeking ibogaine treatment head for Canada or Mexico. Canada was an early adapter and, with far less regulation than in the U.S., a small number of rehab and medical facilities have offered the treatment for more than 30 years. Here is one person's experience.)

Brent McCluskey is a writer based in California who specializes in politics and mental health.

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