An Addict’s Last Refuge

Prescribing an illegal drug that quells deadly cravings

| November-December 2008

  • Ibogaine Treatment

    Image by Jemma Robinson

  • Ibogaine Treatment

In the United States, ibogaine is a Schedule I controlled substance, right alongside heroin, marijuana, and LSD. It’s also a potentially powerful tool for addiction treatment: For decades a worldwide underground network has administered the psychotropic drug, derived from a West African bush, to people in need. Now, in a split-level house in a small town in British Columbia, ibogaine may be nearing recognition as a legitimate medical treatment.

Iboga Therapy House is often a last hope for people wishing to free themselves from addiction to heroin, cocaine, prescription painkillers, or other substances. It was founded in 2002 by Marc Emery, an infamous marijuana activist, who delivered ibogaine for free, funded by seed sales. Two years later, when financial and legal troubles forced Emery to shut down, he encouraged Sandra Karpetas, a comrade in the project, to continue the work.

Karpetas, who has a background in harm-reduction counseling, first heard of ibogaine in the late 1990s. At the time, she found herself moving in two different worlds; in one, she saw people using psychoactive substances for therapeutic, self-explorative purposes; in another, she saw people inflicting great harm on themselves through drug abuse. Ibogaine seemed to bridge the two worlds, a substance that could fight addiction by awakening the mind.

Karpetas professionalized Emery’s operation, reopening Iboga in 2006 as a nonprofit. Treatment is no longer free—a five-to-seven-day course costs $5,000—although the clinic does sometimes donate services. In addition to being screened for a variety of medical conditions and psychiatric problems, candidates must submit a general medical evaluation from a doctor, along with details on their social support network and their plans for recovery.

If they are accepted into the program, clients wait at least 12 hours from the last dose of their drug and then take a test dose of ibogaine to ensure that they will have no adverse reactions. The full dose, administered an hour later, causes a temporary loss of coordination but minimizes withdrawal symptoms, which can include diarrhea, stomach cramps, leg restlessness, inability to sleep, extreme agitation, and depression. Once they are dosed, clients experience a dreamlike state that lasts anywhere from 24 to 36 hours. Many people report that, once the intense rehabilitating trip is completed, their cravings are gone.

Because of ibogaine’s murky legal status, there are few official studies of its effectiveness. In the 1990s Ken Alper, then an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at New York University School of Medicine, conducted research into ibogaine detoxification. In one study of 33 opioid users, 25 were found to be free of withdrawal symptoms 24 hours after treatment and showed no drug-seeking behavior 72 hours later.

Ormond Otvos
4/1/2009 11:42:52 AM

I was a trip guide in the Haight Ashbury of San Francisco in the drug culture of the 60's, and ibogaine is the only drug besides LSD that I found to be effective for reducing and often eliminating self-destructive behavior. As a recent graduate in nuclear physics at the time, I was interested in experimenting lab style, with controls, etc, and sought the advice of the group at Stanford that was conducting LSD experiments. The article is correct that "set and setting" for the drug use, and a personal social support group is very helpful, although not necessary. If you are a member of one of those very frustrated and abused support groups, look into this clinic for a possible solution to the agony of watching someone tear themselves, and you, into pieces.

12/12/2008 6:35:43 PM

This article demonstrates why Canada has a better health care system than the U.S. Careful study that includes many subjects and lasts a long time will ensure better treatment than what is practiced in the U.S. The many drugs used in the U.S. for dual-diagnosis (addictions) are often more dangerous than the original substances used. I feel compassion for the person who thinks there is only one way to surmount addictions. Their position is misleading and may make those who have not succeeded with a 12-Step program to feel hopeless. Empathy is an important part of recovery. We are a diverse species with many options for the self-medicating that addiction represents. I pray to mother-father-creator that no hell exists for those of us who advocate alternative medications for mental health issues, and I firmly believe that addictions are mental health issues.

Gary Ashcraft
10/22/2008 10:43:16 AM

I have absoultely no doubt of Ibogaine's palative value in the initial stages of withdrawl, BUT as a 15 year recovered Alcoholic & Addict I know of NOTHING that will insure long term success like 12 Step Recovery programs ( AA, NA, CA, Etc. ). NOTHING in human history to date has been as effective, NOTHING from AA's inseption has begun to show anything like the proven long term success of 12 Step's. 12 Step's may have many detractors BUT they are all among the community ( albiet 90% ) of society who have never suffered from and then attained long term SOBRIETY. Statictally 90% of society will NEVER personaly suffer addiction, of the 10% of us who do SUFFER only 10% of us ( 1% of Society )will attain and retain long term sobriety. I marvel at those among the larger body of humankind who having no personal knowledge of this devastating disease none the less hold themselve forth as be EXPERTS on addiction, it's treatment, cure, & prevention. I hold a special level of scorn for those in the Legislative, Legal, Law Enforcement, Judicial communities. I hope there is a special tier of HELL waiting for all those who use addiction as a way of advancing thier personal carrier's and ajenda's. Gary Ashcraft ~ None can so tenderly bind a wound as one who has suffered the same affliction ~ THOMAS JEFFERSON

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