Can Ibogaine Curb Afghanistan’s Heroin Problem?

By Paul Gaita 07/28/14

Despite a decade-long battle with crippling heroin addiction, Afghanistan remains reluctant in its desire to treat addicts.

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A former staff member with Doctors of the World is hoping that a unique and controversial treatment for heroin addiction will break the drug’s death grip on the people of Afghanistan.

The country has endured an epidemic of opiate addiction for more than a decade. According to the United Nations, 5.3% of the country’s population—an approximate 1.6 million people—use opiates, including heroin. Despite these horrific conditions, Afghanistan’s leadership does little to assist the victims of this epidemic. Drugs are considered haraam, or sinful, in this devoutly Islamic nation, which is reflected in the relatively small number of beds available in treatment centers across the country.

A new feature on VICE News revealed that an eclectic group of figures from the medical, entertainment, and drug reform worlds have teamed to present a method of heroin addiction treatment that has generated equal amounts of support and concern. Murtaza Majeed, a former Kabul resident and staffer with Doctors of the World’s harm reduction program, hopes to open the first rehab clinic in Afghanistan that specializes in ibogaine treatment.

Ibogaine is a psychotropic drug that has been used in coming-of-age ceremonies in Central America for centuries. More recently, it has enjoyed increasing support from elements of both the scientific and recovery communities as an alternative means of ending heroin addiction. Majeed has enlisted Dimitri “Mobengo” Mugianis, an ibogaine “shaman” who has performed ceremonies with the substance on recovering addicts in the U.S. and Costa Rica, as an adviser, and financial support from indie rapper Felipe Coronel, a.k.a. Immortal Technique, who was introduced to Majeed’s cause by medical marijuana supporter Dana Beal, who hopes to use the Afghan treatment center as a gateway for greater acceptance of ibogaine in America.

The problem with Majeed’s quest: while ibogaine can produce vivid dream imagery, it also has a number of debilitating side effects, including extreme nausea. It’s also been linked to 19 deaths, due largely to pre-existing medical conditions or harmful interaction with other drugs. As a result, ibogaine is considered a Schedule I drug in the United States, on par with heroin and marijuana. While the substance is neither banned nor legal in Afghanistan, American health officials hold sway over Afghan policy decisions on drug issues, which may present a roadblock to widespread acceptance.

The country’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics has been notoriously slow to accept any treatment for heroin—methadone took years to gain even a modest foothold in Afghanistan—and there is also the issue of how Islamic leaders will view a drug with intense psychoactive properties. Majeed hopes to establish a pilot program before approaching the Ministries of Public Health and Justice, but expects that the road to acceptance of ibogaine in Afghanistan will be a long and rocky one.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.