The Increasing Importance of Ibogaine's Role in Recovery

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The Increasing Importance of Ibogaine's Role in Recovery

By Nathan A Thompson 10/03/14

We talk ibogaine with Dimitri Mugianis, a man who used the psychedelic root to cure himself of a 20-year heroin and cocaine habit and now is using it to treat others in Costa Rica.

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“Ibogaine has the potential to be a bomb; that’s what interests me - bringing a real challenge to health care in this country.”

In 2002, Dimitri Mugianis cured a 20-year heroin and cocaine addiction by taking a drug called Ibogaine – a potent psychedelic that cures opiate withdrawal. He has been treating drug users with the same drug ever since. It is a Schedule 1 prohibited substance in the United States. 

After the DEA busted his operation in 2011, he moved his practice to Costa Rica where Ibogaine is legal. He is currently suing the US government for the right to practice his adopted religion of Bwiti – an African faith where Ibogaine is sacred. 

Ibogaine comes from the root of the Iboga bush, native to Gabon in Africa. Legend says that thousands of years ago, a tribal chief found a porcupine chewing on the root. He speared it. Later, when his wife ate its meat, she began seeing visions. After locating the porcupine’s root, the tribe began to use its visions for healing. Contemporary use has grown out of these indigenous practices. 

Ibogaine painlessly detoxes the most damaged dope fiends, though no studies have yet been done to find out how it does this. Due to the underground nature of Ibogaine treatments, there have been deaths. It is likely these people died due to unknown interactions between different drugs rather than any toxicity in the Ibogaine itself. 

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You said a few years ago that you are an “Ibogaine Provider” is that still how you see yourself? 

All identity is pain; that’s what the Buddha said, right? I’ve been initiated into the healing tradition of Bwiti so I am a “ganga” or healer.

Were your legal problems the reason you took Ibogaine treatments to Costa Rica?

Yes, I originally did 500 ceremonies in New York, but in order to continue without harassment we had to move to Costa Rica. Right after we got our confiscated passports back.

What do your treatments look like today?

We set up Iboga Life in Costa Rica, which is a treatment facility that combines the best allopathic medicine with Ibogaine ceremonies. We draw from traditions including Qi Gong, acupuncture, and gong therapy. We wanted to go to a place where we could use Ibogaine in a safe atmosphere with the aid of medical professionals

You work with drug users on the street. Are they able to access the center in Costa Rica?

“To each according to his need, from each according to their abilities,” as a great shaman once said. Our goal is to be inclusive as possible, but it’s an expensive proposition. 

So what do you offer the street people instead?

I was blessed to get a job with New York Harm Reduction Educators. I’m like their healer in residence. We do weekly Bwiti ceremonies for folks who are homeless, drug users and formerly incarcerated people. We don’t use Ibogaine, but we have drumming and dancing.

What healing effect does that have?

It builds community among marginalized groups, which is far more effective than whatever label the shrink is going to put on them. I’m less and less interested in “treating addiction” than creating community and love. Folks need to be heard and they need to dance with each other – Bwiti ceremonies provide that. 

You took Ibogaine in 2002, was that your first spiritual awakening?

Crack and heroin were part of a spiritual process that helped me become the healer I am today. All through my drug use I was aware of something going on - the dope houses of Detroit were spiritual places.

Do you see any similarity between the life of Bill W and your life? For instance, you’re both drug users, you take a substance that gives you a spiritual experience and suddenly you devote your life to saving others…

Good question (laughs). If we look at addiction as a symptom of a materialistic society and the antidote is spiritual then, yes, I see a lot of parallels. Bill W founded an anti-materialist, spiritual collective that is unparalleled in modern times. I have a lot of admiration for him. The difference between me and the 12 steps is they’re still involved in consumerism. They’re still going for a product at the end - this thing called “sobriety." Success for me is seeing marginalized people come to find their personhood. 

Bwiti is a foreign religion so why not adapt it to a psychotherapeutic setting which is more accessible to people in the west?

We’re not out to convert people to Bwiti, but we use their ceremonies because they are proven to work with Ibogaine. African traditions are plastic so they mold to new circumstance really well. We do offer secular treatments but 95% opt for the ceremony. Why? Because it’s an appropriate setting. 

Psychotherapy and psychiatry are comparatively young healing arts – they have only been around for 100 years or so whereas Bwiti has a history going back thousands of years. While psychiatry has some great ideas there is the arrogance of adolescence present there and an unwillingness to listen to older and wiser traditions.

You can’t detach the ceremony from the drug— it’s like it’s present in its molecules. For example, one guy we treated was a Sicilian immigrant and when he awoke from his trance he described perfectly a Bwiti ceremony in Africa. When I returned to the village the tribe told me that they had seen him too – in their visions. 

How does Bwiti view the nature of addiction?

The Bwiti would think of addiction as witchcraft or a spell and that metaphor informs the way I work with people. Addiction behaves like a spell because it is passed on ancestrally or through some kind of violation. For example, witchcraft could be sexual abuse or anything that crushes your spirit; for the Bwiti, if that happens, the solution is always plant medicine. 

What other aspects are there to your treatment?

Firstly, we have nurses on hand to monitor their reactions to the drug. Then we help the drug user go through the experience - we talk to them, feed them and shower them with love. It’s not an easy process; it’s not all sunshine and light, but Ibogaine is like a parent. It’s going to be hard sometimes, but ultimately it’s about love.

People do still relapse after Ibogaine treatment though... 

Of course, but we still don’t know what addiction really is. So to say that this treatment or that treatment is going to save your life is to do a disservice to people. All we can do is help as best we can.

So Ibogaine interrupts the withdrawal symptoms associated with opiates, apart from that, isn’t it just an interesting trip?

No, it’s a life changing experience. The visions impart insights and teachings that will go on for the rest of your life. It’s not just something to do on a Friday night.

What kind of effects would those insights have on someone’s life?

All kinds. I’ve seen sexual or gender issues resolved - interestingly enough, there’s never been a gay person who came out straight but the other way around has happened many times. I treated one woman and a few weeks later we had lunch together— it was the first time she ate in front of a man since she was 12 years old. I’ve seen people write a letter to their father who molested them. One guy had a problem with black people and after the healing he started to work with African American communities. I could go on.

You see junkies as emissaries of Ibogaine into western culture. Can you explain that belief?

It’s like the story of Christ healing the leper. Why did Jesus pick this highly politicized body with this obvious condition? Because lepers were feared and marginalized. 

Likewise, I believe Ibogaine picked junkies because they are also politicized, marginalized and a public health issue. And the healing is just as dramatic. You take a junky and give him Ibogaine on Monday and on Tuesday he’s no longer physically dependent. 

So is the Christ story about leprosy? Is the Iboga story about addiction? No, it’s about using the lowest of the low to carry a message 

You have a high profile role in the Ibogaine community, do you worry that you might be doing more harm than good – like some people say that Leary’s work in the 1960s led to LSD being banned and research into its benefits stopped.

Yes (laughs).

So why do it then?

There are people working to bring Ibogaine into the existing medical structure, but I look at the so-called mental health system in this country and it scares the shit out of me. I see its results every day on 125th and Lexington and it’s not pretty. I’m not interested in getting Ibogaine accepted any more; I want to practice my religion and be left in peace.

The risk of continuing underground treatments is that if there was a high-profile death then the prohibition would become more draconian and no one would get treated.

Well that’s true, but you only need to look at the list of side effects for all medicines to see that they too, have the potential to harm. People have died in the Ibogaine underground, but the most dangerous place for a drug user to be is in mainstream society where they die from shame and stigma. 

What would have to change in the world for Ibogaine to be offered to people more readily?

There’s not a lot of money to be made off Ibogaine compared to maintenance therapy, like methadone. And if you free people spiritually then you can’t control them any more. So the for-profit medical and pharmaceutical industry would have to change and people at large would have to open up their minds to the possibility of psychedelic drugs being a force for good in the world. 

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