Ibogaine and Frog Poison: Alternative Treatments for Addiction

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Ibogaine and Frog Poison: Alternative Treatments for Addiction

By Tracy Chabala 09/28/16

Justin Hoffman's Holistic House uses plant remedies to treat addiction in people who, like him, did not find success in 12-step rehabs.

Image: 
Green tree frog

Stepping into Holistic House Vegas, you immediately feel at ease. The smell of sage and the euphony of a small waterfall spilling into the backyard pool lightens whatever load you’ve been carrying. So does the warm welcome from Justin Hoffman as he invites you into this luxury sober living that also doubles as his own home in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb just outside of Las Vegas. With Hoffman’s four rescue dogs roaming freely through the palatial space, and with a Zildjian gong and crystal singing bowls standing in the living room, the seven-bedroom house bears little semblance to a recovery facility. 

Hoffman started Holistic House as a means to provide aftercare to addicts following ibogaine treatment they receive at a clinic south of the border. The care is nurturing and individualized—he only admits five residents at a time—and it incorporates holistic treatments without the punishing or “hardcore” approach that’s common in many 12-step based rehabs throughout the U.S. 

“I want people to feel like they’re at peace when they come here,” Hoffman said in a press release. “I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a low-level prison; you’ve got to treat them like human beings, especially when they’re going through so much.”

Within seconds of meeting Hoffman, you sense that he’s a fiery free-thinker. A self-described “victim of the recovery business,” he moonlights as a high-profile open format DJ on the Vegas strip where he’s maintained a strong presence for well over a decade. His talents for spinning have led him to command the turntables at impressive venues like Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, and he’s opened for James Brown and Prodigy.

Then there’s his political side—he took to the stage at this year’s Nevada State Democratic Caucus to remind the crowd that any sane progressive should vote for Bernie. He’s also known for posting punchy left-leaning polemics on social media to the infuriation of many a trolling conservative.

This political impulse runs in the family—Hoffman is the nephew of Abbie Hoffman, arguably the most influential counterculture icon of the 1960s who successfully pissed off everyone from Richard Nixon to Pete Townshend through unprecedented political theatrics. But he made a lasting impact through his activist efforts, penning the now-classic anti-capitalist manifesto Steal This Book. 

Like his uncle, Hoffman is dead set on disrupting the status quo, but his disruption zeroes in on the field of addiction medicine. By promoting the use of ibogaine, along with other sacred plant medicines and holistic treatments, as a means of stemming the most seemingly intractable of addictions, he hopes to effect much needed change in the recovery model.

“The model needs to change. Ninety percent of our rehabs are 12-step based,” Hoffman told The Fix. “I would love to see the whole mind-body-soul model—even if it’s not my exact model—empower addicts.” 

This mission is fueled by personal tragedy. For 20 years Hoffman suffered under the weight of an unyielding opiate addiction, one that would not abate despite checking himself into dozens of rehabs, all which used the 12-step model of recovery. 

“It’s somewhere between 25 and 35,” Hoffman said, tallying up his many rehab stints. “It was almost a monthly, maybe a bi-monthly, trip. I was really trying.” 

Because he was indoctrinated with the idea that you have to choose between AA and “jails, institutions or death,” he remained unaware of alternative modalities. In the end, all of this ineffective treatment racked up a tab of approximately $200,000, much of it paid for by friends and family. 

At one point Hoffman managed to stay off opiates for a stretch in AA, until his sponsor—the famous DJ AM—died from a heroin overdose while still a devout 12-stepper. Hoffman relapsed in the aftermath and subsequently found himself mired in a depression so thick he contemplated suicide. By that point, whatever faith he’d put in 12-step programs had, for the most part, unraveled.

“What I saw was someone who really gave AA 110 percent—he had 11 years [clean] and sponsored a bunch of people and went to thousands of meetings—and for some reason he still ended up overdosing. It made me start to question the program,” Hoffman said.  

Roughly three despairing years passed before Hoffman finally discovered ibogaine, the much buzzed-about plant indigenous to Equatorial Africa and used by the Bwiti people for centuries as an agent for spiritual transformation. It’s been touted as somewhat of a miracle cure for opiate addiction by some, and is known to expel withdrawal symptoms and elicit a veritable psychic change that kills drug use within 24 hours. Of course, to get your hands on some you’ve either got to hit up the Dark Net or venture to Mexico, Central America or South America, since it’s illegal in the U.S.

No one in the rehab business, addiction medicine field or 12-step camp pointed Hoffman to the path of the so-called iboga spirit that ultimately brought his misery to an end. Instead, he discovered it while watching a VICE documentary on HBO.

“After watching it I couldn’t believe it; it didn’t sound correct,” he said. “But then I went on the computer and started doing some research and listening to some of the stories, and I felt like I had nothing to lose.”

He quickly journeyed down to Mexico in the hopes of getting better, and it worked.

“I did the medicine and within 15 minutes it stopped all withdrawals. Then I started getting certain visions. It was amazing because I woke up eight hours later and the depression was gone, the anxiety was gone, and I knew that it was completely over. I knew I would never touch drugs again. And that was three-and-a-half years ago.”

Hoffman says the integration of holistic modalities after ibogaine treatment is “as important as the ibogaine,” and this is precisely the reason he felt the need to open Holistic House. “Because you’re open energetically after you do a medicine like ibogaine, to go back to your old apartment, and to go back to your old friends, and to go back to the nightclubs or whatever you were doing before is, I would say, almost deadly,” he said.

Ibogaine treatment is certainly known to carry risks, including risks of death via cardiovascular failure for those with heart problems, and psychosis is a potential side effect for anyone with either latent or full-blown schizophrenia. For these reasons, Hoffman is very picky about where he refers his clients, usually directing them to Medicine Heart Recovery in Baja California.  

“We do extensive medical tests before they get the medicine,” he said. “If they’re not getting the tests done here from their doctor, the first thing they do when they go down to Mexico is go to a hospital and have extensive blood work and EKGs done to make sure, and it’s always asked of the clients if they have any past mental illness.”

After clients finish their treatment, Hoffman drives from Vegas to pick them up, a journey totaling nine hours that he sometimes pulls off twice a week.  

“I like to do this over putting them on a plane, because I don’t like them sitting in an airport by themselves where there’s all that temptation,” he said. “Not only that, it gives me four-and-a-half hours to get to know them and to feel them out and see what’s actually going on. I try to explain to them during that time what we’re going to do.”

Some of the post-ibogaine modalities Hoffman integrates at Holistic House include Reiki, Buddhist meditation, hot yoga, kundalini yoga, trips to a nearby high-end gym, floatation therapy, drum circles and Qigong, all which are included in the cost of stay. Once a week, a psychotherapist visits the house and conducts groups in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Emotional Intelligence Therapy. Hoffman encourages clients to chase all this with lots of amino acids to balance their brain chemistry, along with a diet of fresh and organic foods.

”It’s best to give yourself a month to process everything that happened. For most people it takes about three weeks for it to fully kick in, for the brain to really start feeling like it’s repaired and healed,” Hoffman said. “That’s why I started [Holistic House].”

Perhaps the most intriguing modality used at Holistic House is the administration of kambo, a poison found in an Amazonian tree frog that’s been known to help curb addiction while ridding people of dark energy, leading to a physical, spiritual and psychological catharses akin to ibogaine.

“I’ve seen so many benefits [of using kambo],” Hoffman said. “Specifically, at Holistic House, most of the people come here and they’re still having some withdrawal symptoms. Some have had hepatitis C, and we’ve been able to knock it out of their bodies with kambo. We’ve been able to stop [heroin] withdrawals within about 25 minutes.”

Hoffman works closely with kambo practitioner and Reiki Master Tishara Lee Cousino—who he calls a kambo master—to administer this frog medicine to his clients. Cousino is one of a mere handful of certified kambo practitioners in the U.S. who’s been trained through the International Association of Kambo Practitioners (IAKP). She administers the kambo in three rounds, a standard practice known as an inoculation.    

According to its devotees, the medicine does more than just kick addiction—it’s also been said to improve symptoms of mental illness. 

“People have contacted me who have had severe depression or suicidal feelings, and after three treatments they call me and tell me that they feel completely different,” Hoffman said. “Everything about them has changed.”

In addition to administering kambo, Cousino also works with rapé (pronounced hapé), a “sacred snuff” made from a potent combination of tobacco and other herbs grown in the Amazonian basin. The pulverized tobacco blend is blown into the recipient’s nose after she has set an intention for spiritual growth and enlightenment. Once inhaled, the user will often purge, feel the need to spit or find herself plagued with a very runny nose. According to Amazonian shamans, these are all signs that negative entities have cleared.

“It grounds the body,” Cousino said. “Just like people go to their five-o’clock happy hour, we’ll use rapé in the morning or night, or sometimes just once a day or once a month, to just ground the body into releasing stuck energy. It realigns the chakras.” 

Given Hoffman’s integration of kambo and rapé, not to mention the floatation therapy, gong therapy, and drum circles, among other healing arts, Holistic House might just be the most off-the-beaten-path treatment facility in the nation.  

A 30-day stay in a standard room—there are only single-occupancy rooms—costs $9,000, which is considered low when compared to most rehab facilities. With amenities like a private chef that cooks healthful meals each evening, a designer pool, a gym membership and all the included healing modalities and psychotherapy, Holistic House functions like a high-end rehab. 

“Right now, we spend almost every single thing that comes in,” Hoffman said. “There’s really no profit right now, just because we spend so much taking care of them. The average rehab I went to cost $9,000 per week. What I got for $9,000 a week was pep talks, AA meetings, horrible and unhealthy food, lectures about the four food groups from 1970s, or maybe we’d get lucky and be able to paint a helmet on what our emotion of the day is—stuff that is absolutely ineffective.”

Still, with the ibogaine treatment at Medicine Heart Recovery costing roughly $6,000, the whole treatment package will easily prove unaffordable for many people. Hoffman hopes that as these alternative treatments become accepted by the medical community—and the government—the cost of treatment might be subsidized to make it more affordable. Right now, many traditional rehab facilities are covered by the Affordable Care Act. 

“Hopefully one day, after we can prove the effectiveness of what we’re doing, we can possibly get grants and some funding,” Hoffman said. “I can look any parent in the face and say this is by far the best treatment for addiction on the planet. I’ve seen some of the toughest cases turn around overnight, which would not happen in a regular rehab.”  

***

Though I came to Holistic House for an interview, Hoffman and Cousino believed I would benefit from some rapé, and, given I am always looking to boost my mood by a few notches, I decided to green-light the idea. After Hoffman blew the sacred snuff into my nostrils, which led to acute burning in my nasal cavities for 30 seconds, my head seemed to shed half its weight and the chatter within it fell silent. As it did, Hoffman informed me that the grey circles hanging beneath my eyes had vanished.

“Those are entities,” he said. “They’re leaving.”

At the time I wasn’t sure this burst of equanimity was just a buzz from the very strong tobacco or in fact a bunch of entities fleeing my chakras. But I can say that the following week I enjoyed a much-welcomed stillness of mind, along with an inrush of physical vitality and emotional positivity, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. One sniff of that stuff seemed to shave ten years off my age, and, to my shock, axed the repetitive night terrors I’ve suffered since adolescence. 

After a week, though, these effects lessened a bit. I grew weightier, the dark circles beneath my eyes resurfacing. But some sort of tweak in my psyche seemed to persist, a strong current of positivity, as though the rapé permanently took the edge off my perennial dark thoughts. After burning some sage and sprinkling lavender buds all over myself, which I couldn’t believe I was doing, the levity and vitality slowly returned. It returned full force when I amped up my meditation practice.

I like to call myself an atheistic materialist, but this experience turned me into somewhat of a believer in esoteric healing—I’ve already started researching where I can get inoculated via kambo in Los Angeles. So despite my strong cynical streak I know I’d be foolish to dismiss the possibility that Hoffman’s really onto something. 

Julian Mesa would agree. The 23-year-old graduate of Holistic House who currently works for Hoffman kicked his addiction to ketamine through kambo. He followed this up with an ibogaine “booster” session to heighten his spiritual and psychological well-being. 

“I’ve been clean a year and some change,” Mesa said. “I went to a really crappy rehab [in Vegas] before, and they kept wanting to shove pills down my throat. When I came here it was just such a different experience, and it worked completely. Now we just get to enjoy life.”

Tracy Chabala is a personal essayist and journalist covering addiction, mental health, technology, and food. Her work has been featured in the LA Times, Salon, VICE, and the LA Weekly, among other publications. She holds a Masters of Professional Writing from USC and has just finished her first novel.

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Tracy Chabala is a personal essayist and freelance journalist covering food, technology, and addiction for multiple outlets. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, LA Weekly, Salon, and VICE. She is working on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @tracyachabala.

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