American Shaman at the Forefront of the Ibogaine Movement

By Remi L. Roy 01/12/15

The Fix Q&A (again) with Dimitri Mugianis, drug policy activist and spiritual healer, on the powers and possibilities of ibogaine.

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Dimitri Muganis

Dimitri Mugianis is a polarizing character. Supporters credit the neoshaman with helping save the lives of many a broken, downtrodden junkie by way of his iboga therapy and Bwiti ceremonies. Fundamentalists and detractors accuse him of perpetuating new age hogwash. Love him or hate him, Mugianis, who was mentored by the late Howard Lotsof, so-called father of the American ibogaine movement, has become the new face of the unconventional drug treatment. The Fix caught up with the 52-year-old drug policy activist and spiritual healer to discuss how the root bark of an African rainforest shrub is being hailed for treating everything from cocaine and heroin addiction, to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

You’re a revered and reviled figure in the recovery realm. Purists, preachers of abstinence and drug authorities have criticized your work, yet you’re celebrated on the streets, lauded by ex-junkies for the miracles you’ve worked in their lives. Can it be a challenge finding a balance on that proverbial seesaw? 

There’s a big challenge, there’s plenty of criticism, and some of it’s valid. And so I have to – especially as I approach the stage of my life when I’m becoming an elder – start to listen to some of the criticism. My life has been way out of balance for many, many years, and the last 12 years has been trying to find some sort of balance given the spirit I have and the trickster energy that’s all over me. 

In 2002, you traveled to the Netherlands for ibogaine treatment in hopes of kicking a vicious cocaine and heroin habit. You’ve said that on that literal and figurative trip you visited your hereditary past in visions of Greek ancestors, and saw your future. What all did that experience entail? 

The visions were really healing: childhood trauma would come and be washed away; my common law-wife had died five years before that and I blamed myself for it, I was cleansed of responsibility; my ancestors – I saw a matriarch buried deep in the Peloponnese soil saying the debts are off; I saw my spiritual father Papa Andre, whom I met six years later in Gabon. I was overjoyed. Some people come out still wanting to use and other people come out angry, but I was praising God over and over again. I came out of it and had absolutely no desire to use ever again, and I haven’t since. 

Your wife died of an overdose while pregnant but, rather than serve as a catalyst to get clean, you slipped into a downward spiral that lasted into the early 2000s. What motivated you to finally get sober? 

I was taking 100 milligrams of methadone and shooting a bunch of dope and speed-balling coke and drinking benzodiazepine. The heroin gave me relief from suffering from the hurt in my belly and my heart, and the cocaine made me psychotic. My world had become very small. It was a relationship that became problematic, then became chaotic, then became painful, then became abusive, and I was either going to die or I was going to die. 

The DEA arrested you a few years back while en route to pray at a tree as part of a Bwiti ceremony. How did that scene play out? 

It was a paid informant and the relationship started up a year, year-and-a-half before the actual arrest. We had been in contact with a woman who was seeking help and I tried to talk her out of it [ibogaine treatment]. She was really persistent and we gave her a recommendation to go to Mexico and she came back to us and said her father wouldn’t allow her to go. She was desperate and crying on the phone. We went out to Seattle, just about to go for the ceremony, and we were busted. 

You pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 45 days of house arrest and fined $25. Did you foresee that kind of grace from the draconian American judicial system? 

After that two-and-a-half year odyssey with the federal government, it looked for a long time like we were going to prison. We hired a great law firm that represented us diligently for very little money and the amazing thing is when we got to court even the prosecutor said there’s no such thing as a misdemeanor in a federal court. There were a lot of factors at play. We expressed our desire to pursue our religious rights, I don’t think they wanted a courtroom filled with mothers and sisters and users and former users talking about the work we’ve done, and, unfortunately, I think the biggest factor was my white privilege, my male privilege, played a significant role in this. White people don’t go to jail the way black people and brown people go to jail. Being an activist and anarchist for all these years, being in opposition, there was some sort of synergy happening where I could see the humanity of the prosecutor, the judge and arresting officers. I don’t even believe in the court system, but it was an extraordinary day. 

You are part of a small group looking to make Bwiti a recognized religion in the US. How is that battle panning out?

It’s going well. We’re incorporated in the state of New York and right now we’re in conversation with a couple different law firms about moving forward, but that will take some energy in the form of capital, so we’re trying to figure out ways of raising that. I think we have a good chance of winning [in court]. It’s our contention that we never broke the law, the federal government broke the law for coming after us.  

When you were booked in Seattle, your crew had a couple ounces of grass in the mix. What role, if any, does cannabis play in your ceremonies?

For me, it doesn’t play any role. I don’t smoke weed. I wish I could, but it makes me paranoid. I’m not sure quite where I fall on [the issue], because I know that if people are trying to change their life, it may be important not to introduce a substance. Having said that, cannabis can be a very effective medicine for people kicking an opiate habit, helping them to sleep and get their appetites back. Cannabis and iboga are next of kin all the time. I think a full quarter of the people I treated were growers. 

In what ways did your ibogaine therapy sessions change when you introduced Bwiti into the mix? 

I wanna really make this clear: I’m a Greek boy from Detroit, I’m not 12 generations into Bwiti and I can’t say that I’m some deeply initiated N’ganga. I can say there are elements of the Bwiti that seem to make the transition from the middle passage to here, so I began to use some of those influences. We want [our subjects] to go out and talk to the forest and talk to their ancestors, because we believe that this goes generations and generations and generations. We’re in sync with allopathic medicine, healing ancestral trauma, or the passing of a spell. 

One reporter wrote, “This is a struggle of mythical proportions between the heaven and the earth, between the good and bad in everyone's soul, and Dimitri is the urban shaman, toiling at the extraction of all demons and the healing of all souls.” How do you react to a compliment like that?

I like to think that maybe I’m doing some good. Herbert Huncke was one of my teachers and he used to say, ‘shoot your best stick, kid.’ And I’m just trying to shoot my best stick. We’re at a time in the world when we have the opportunity to really look at some stuff and maybe make some changes for what I would call good, and I hope to be a little part of that. If I can remove suffering a little bit, I think that’s a pretty good life. If I can shed light on what we’re doing to each other and the planet through white privilege, male privilege, Western privilege, consumerism, then I think I’m doing a good job. 

“Cultural imperialism is very strong witchcraft and there’s a lot of darkness involved in the world of shamanism – shamans should often be treated as doctors or lawyers, with caution. This stuff has almost killed me, several times.” Can you elaborate? 

I’m a fucking target. I’m this Greek boy and what do I know. Actually, what do I know? There’s an appropriation there that I understand, that breeds jealousy. Some folks think I’m making money and I’m sitting in a studio apartment in East Harlem. The engine of witchcraft is jealousy and greed, and I believe it’s real. I’ve felt the effects of it but I don’t want to go into great detail. It’s part of my job, blood in, blood out. 

Ibogaine has the power to save and claim lives. Is that haunting fact in the back of your mind when you go into a therapy session?

Absolutely. To consume something to address a chaotic [issue] is crazy. I think it’s a process that can be illuminating to many. Look, this is a big deal. When you do this, people can die in the process if you’re not careful. It’s no joke. At this point, I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna dance because my stomach hurts. I’ve had 600 treatments and I have a lot of post-traumatic stress because anything can happen. I know that this medicine was the catalyst in changing my life, but I also know that I had to engage in my own healing once iboga opened the door. 

Remi L. Roy, founder of Martyr Magazine, last wrote about holding doctors responsible for prescription drug deaths and the global epidemic of synthetic drugs.

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