The Ibogaine Experience: A Miracle Cure or a Bad Trip?

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The Ibogaine Experience: A Miracle Cure or a Bad Trip?

By Doug Heyes and Alesha Carlander 08/08/14

Is ibogaine a phenomenal tool for addiction or not? We visit a cross-border medical clinic and follow five people who have their own answers.

Image: 
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Burning text from Alesha to Doug: “Pack a bag and be ready for anything.”

Our most epic adventures begin with these words. Within a couple hours, we’re in the back seat of a Nissan Xterra, bumping down the living streets of Tijuana, Mexico, our lives securely in the hands of Dr. Martin Polanco. Martin is a good guy, 38, obviously brilliant, devoted, charming, Mexican-Austrian, perfect English, a deep, strong ancient warrior energy rumbling just below the surface of his gentle and soft-spoken manner. A guy you definitely want to know, and want on your side.

The subject is ibogaine and addiction recovery. Dr. Polanco is something of an expert in the field. His personal search for outside-the-box solutions to addiction can be traced to the suffering of a close family member. “My family was desperate,” he tells us. “The pain was so great. Here was this wonderful, amazing person, someone we all loved deeply, whose life had been totally wrecked by drugs. Traditional recovery methods were useless. It became my personal mission to find an answer, to find some way to help.”  

Although he started his schooling in ophthalmology – the medical specialty of “helping people to see” – Polanco abandoned his residence training after a year (it was divine timing) to undertake his quest for answers. That, and curiosity about indigenous medicines dating back to his teenage years, eventually led to extensive work with ibogaine and to becoming a medical doctor at the age of 23 (the norm in Mexico). He’s been treating patients – or guests as they are known at his Crossroads Treatment Center – for the past 14 years. Before 2006, he tells us, he personally administered treatment more than 600 times. Since then, the clinic’s expanded medical staff has treated several hundreds more addicts, mostly from the U.S., seeking deep rehabilitation, at a soul level. 

We are bumping along to a visit to Crossroads, chosen for inspection via the recommendation of a documentary filmmaker friend who has conducted extensive research in the field seeking a medically-operated, advanced and successful ibogaine-focused addiction treatment center in Mexico. This is a country in which ibogaine treatment centers, some if not many of them fly-by-night, have been rapidly proliferating to address the consuming demand for some truly effective relief from the addiction epidemic in the U.S. and elsewhere. Our friend had told us that if our personal concern for the safety of our Fix-family led us to choose a quality ibogaine clinic operated under high medically-supervised standards and ethical responsibility rather than undertake a broad survey of Mexican ibo clinics, Crossroads was the place. Of course, we wanted to see for ourselves and form our own opinions.

Crash course in ibogaine: It’s a medicinal alkaloid from the root of the Iboga bush common to Gabon, Cameroon, and other hot, wet African places, where it is known as “Holy Wood” and has been central to indigenous spiritual, divinatory and diagnostic practices for thousands of years. It is scientifically classified as an “entheogen”- one of the sacred earth medicines that “generate the God within” along with an other-worldly consciousness. Considered by many to be the most powerful psychedelic known to mankind, it was made illegal in the U.S. in the great drug purges of the late 1960s, along with pretty much anything else with psychoactive properties, despite a growing body of research pointing to its effectiveness in treating addiction, particularly opioid drugs like heroin. All legal research with these potential medicines was suspended in the U.S. for four decades, during which time America’s opiate addiction – both legally prescribed and dealer supplied – grew from an east-coast ripple into a heartland tidal wave.

There have been numerous short-term research studies that establish a credible scientific basis for ibogaine’s interaction with brain receptors to disrupt cravings and opiate withdrawal symptoms. In early animal experiments, it was found that the drug acts as an opioid antagonist which dramatically reduces symptoms of withdrawal and, crucially, opiate self-administration. It appears to act directly on the serotonin and dopamine systems as well. As ibogaine bonds with opiate receptors in the brain, it returns these receptors to a “pre-addicted” state. This buys the person a stretch of “addiction-interruption,” free from withdrawals or cravings – a time best used by working on any underlying emotional and psychological factors contributing to addiction. 

After a time, some cravings tend to return, though in a much weaker way – having much to do with personal metabolism and the way each person’s body converts ibogaine into nor-ibogaine, stores it in the liver and releases it slowly into the system over time.  

No definitive and comprehensive success/failure studies exist, though long-term successes have been claimed by a number of treatment centers, some of these bolstered by YouTube testimonial videos. One study by science researcher Howard Lotsof, who claimed ibogaine cured him of heroin addiction before he went on to patent several ibogaine treatments, indicated we’re looking at a three to six months window of no cravings after just one treatment, and considerable better success with more treatments. That same study reported: “It is noteworthy that 29 of the 35 patients successfully treated with ibogaine had numerous unsuccessful experiences with other treatment modalities.”

Even under the best of circumstances, Dr. Polanco estimates the percentage of opiate addicts who get clean and stay that way for more than a year at around 25%-30%; the percentage drops to around 20% with other drugs and alcohol. What is clearer from available research and testimonials is that recovering addicts, at minimum, buy themselves time to make the necessary choices and changes in their lives that support their continued recovery.  

Quite apart from its therapeutic effect on brain receptors, the experience of ibogaine as described by those who have taken it, is, in every sense, a deep, therapeutic and even sacramental rite of passage - an initiation into higher realms of the spirit. Its lessons can be aversive, confrontational, frightening. It can call us out in unimaginable ways, give us a squirming look under the rock of our lives, compel us to unearth and examine what we’ve buried in the black muck of our unconscious. It can also give us a taste of total freedom, of merging with The One in the Divine Light, even as it forces us to reckon with (and then for many who experience it, blessedly frees us from) lifetimes of karma; to reckon also with our pain, torment and suffering, with the chains of our attachments in the physical and non-physical planes. At the very least, ibogaine – as with all the sacred earth medicines – deserves to be approached with the utmost humility and respect.

Far from its primeval forest roots in West Equatorial Africa – where each iboga initiate receives rigorous physical and spiritual training and preparation for what is to be the most important religious sacrament of their lives – here in the west the internet offers medical treatment models, lay provider guides, activist/self-help practitioners, and spiritual/religious retreats. All of these programs vary widely in their practices, facilities, services, costs, and ethical orientation. You have to know in advance what you’re looking for, and be willing to do real due diligence to make sure you’re getting it. 

THE CROSSROADS TREATMENT CLINIC is housed in a sparkling, Zen-clean modern building in what is regarded as the safest and most modern area of Tijuana. The clinic here is so new; a couple floors of the building aren’t even finished yet. Plans to expand into the remaining floors are being realized with open spaces, living walls, human design.  

Staffed by three full-time doctors (two of whom we found are always present during treatment sessions) as well as round-the-clock nursing, psychological and support staff, the clinic maintains both state of the art advanced life-support capabilities and a gentle, spiritually authentic atmosphere. Because ibogaine can be a rough journey for the heart (there have been 19 deaths reported around the world between 1990 and 2008), all patients undergo rigorous medical exams and are rejected for treatment if they fail.  The clinic medical staff, we witness, screens for heart and circulatory problems and takes a detailed pharmacological history to make sure that patients don't have drugs or supplements in their system that interact with ibogaine. All prospective clients undergo a 12-lead ECG (EKG) and some are required to wear a Holter monitor and are rejected if anomalies appear. Liver function and electrolyte levels are examined with blood work. 

Patients are also required to prove they are clean, including of certain pharmaceuticals, and drug tests are administered daily until the medical staff is as certain as it possibly can be that no drugs or other substances contra-indicated for ibogaine are present. The clinic screens for an extensive list of contraindicated drugs, pharmaceuticals, supplements and foods. Even so, Dr. Polanco readily informs us, about 1% of clients require medical attention after ibogaine treatment, some of whom have found ways to cheat. Some studies have shown that 1 in 300 patients dies from taking ibogaine.  

The staff  turns out to be uniformly warm, friendly, bright, welcoming, and something more: Every staffer we encounter, from the doctors and nurses to the drivers and security guards, radiates what we describe to each other as a truthful and sweet intelligence and compassionate nature, such that, as we both comment, we experience them as deeply comforting and inexpressibly wise. In fact, we remark to each other, somewhat poetically, that they are like guardians of an ancient wisdom who are grateful for the chance to share. As we learn from our interviews, almost all of Dr. Polanco’s staff (cooks and cleaners included) has experienced an ibogaine session for themselves which, they tell us, has had a profoundly positive effect on their inner and outer lives and how they relate to other people. “It helps them understand what our guests are going through,” Dr. Polanco explains. 

During our stay at Crossroads Clinic and at the upscale beachfront mansion located between Rosarito Beach and Ensenada that serves as the clinic’s guest housing and recovery center, we had the honor to be invited by several addicted or alcoholic guests to participate with them both before and after their ibogaine treatment as first-hand witnesses to what they would claim were remarkable journeys in recovery. What follows are details about out direct experiences with two of the guests. 

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