Ibogaine actually made its pharmaceutical debut as a cure for anti-depression from 1939 to 1970, produced by a French company under the name Lambarene. Toward the end of its tenure it began to be used by athletes as they became aware of its athletic enhancing properties. Around that same time, a 19 year old heroin addict named Howard Lotsof, took some Ibogaine to take advantage of its hallucinogenic effects and, by mere happenstance, noticed it eliminated his heroin cravings. It wasn’t too long before word spread and heroin clinics started experimenting with Ibogaine treatments worldwide, and animal studies began in the United States during the 1980s. Initial results were quite positive and hopeful, until researchers starting noticing Ibogaine’s tragic pitfall. That even while it dramatically reduced cravings in heroin addicts, it also had an unacceptably high mortality rate for those undergoing treatment. And, for the most part, all of the hopeful ‘hoopla’ surrounding Ibogaine disappeared.
However, in the interim, experimentation continued in some smaller countries around the world. For a drug with such a high degree of promise, it was hoped that researchers might find a way to get the Genie back into the bottle and benefit from the helpful properties of Ibogaine while limiting its nasty side-effects. Today, there are a number of clinics throughout Central and South America, which feel they are making considerable progress in that regard and have had decent recent success in treating heroin addicts with low dosage treatments of Ibogaine. Recovered addicts, along with a handful of scientists, argue that low dosage Ibogaine, a rainforest shrub commonly known as Tabernanthe Iboga, can ‘reset’ the addiction button in the brain, freeing people from their obsessive cravings. As claims have spread, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people have begun flocking to clinics yet again, in search of a solution. Clinic operators claim that treatments using Ibogaine curbing addictive behavior, as well as depression, are currently successful in about 70 percent of their patients.
That success rate, if true, would make Ibogaine a sorely needed remedy for an exploding problem. In the US, most research indicates that heroin addiction has doubled since 2007, reaching upwards of 1 million serious addicts today. The increase in needle use has also triggered a new surge in HIV infections. Overall, over 7.1 million Americans had some kind of serious drug problem according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, in a 2104 study. Unfortunately, while most seek out help, they do so in vain. It is reported that 40-60 percent of substance abuse patients will relapse. That percentage increases to over 80% if the user stops taking methadone, the most common opiate replacement therapy.
Ibogaine proponents say it does a better job because it works on many neural pathways at the same time, not just one, as do other treatments. Buoyed by these ideas, two companies, one with partial funding from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (a federal agency) are currently developing medications based upon Ibogaine derivatives. But they still need to overcome Ibogaine’s obvious down-side. During treatment, patients can suffer from cardiac arrest, arrhythmia and even death. Published medical reports on Ibogaine are scarce, but one of the more reputable ones noted 19 deaths in treatment of 3,500 patients between 1990 and 2008. Moreover, most clinics are informal so the results may not be as reliable as we would like. The Royal College of Psychiatrists in London thinks the estimate is much higher, more like one death per every 300 treatments. However, given the high mortality rates of addicts themselves who cannot otherwise find sobriety, perhaps Ibogaine is a risk worth taking. Plus, it is anticipated that the high incident rate will come down over time with greater use and scrutiny of Ibogaine in more professional environments.
Envision, is one of the clinics at the forefront of this battle. It is located in Costa Rica and has treated more than 1,000 patients within the past 5 years. They have kept doses to a minimum, hire a host of local medical professionals to supervise their work and, as a result, patients have only occasionally suffered some mild side-effects from heart arrhythmia. They claim that their treatments can cure 75% of the people who come to them.
Ibogaine is showing some tremendous potential but there’s still a lot more work and studies which need to be done before it becomes more mainstream. It certainly seems to demonstrate curative effects, because most, if not all, addicts claim it truly does reduce their cravings. The major problem though, is that even when you reduce cravings, the addict still struggles with the euphoric recall of how great it felt to be high. Many addicts succumb to ‘that’ and not the cravings, but it is still a relapse nonetheless. Therefore, it is very important to combine psychological re-learning and other useful sociological tools along with the Ibogaine treatment, to maximize the likelihood of its success and the addict’s recovery. The jury is still out on how this will all play out, but hopefully this unique treatment can evolve and be beneficial to a greater number of addicts because we in the addiction treatment field are often at our wits end. It would be awesome to have another arrow in our quiver, in the battle against the demons of addiction.