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Why Thousands Are Turning to a Psychedelic Plant from Africa for Release from Severe Addictions

A psychedelic plant from Africa has sparked an underground revolution in medicine.

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Ibogaine works a mysterious voodoo that combines the spiritual and the biochemical. More than anything else, it challenges the legitimacy of the “disease” model of addiction, and no one anywhere on the health care food chain wants to hear that, especially if they are profiting from the immiseration caused by drug abuse.

So what is ibogaine? The two-volume reference bible Psychedelic Medicine classifies ibogaine as a naturally occurring alkaloid of the Tabernanthe Iboga plant native to West Central Africa. The iboga root bark contains a powerful psychedelic that has been used as a religious sacrament for centuries. In the colonial era, iboga served as a vital instrument of psycho-spiritual resistance for the indigenous population against the encroachment of the white man.

Today iboga is used primarily by the Bwiti religion of Gabon in their initiatory rites of passage, like those described by Daniel Pinchbeck in Breaking Open the Head (credit the Bwiti with the title, it's their term for what happens when one takes the drug).  During the ritual large amounts of iboga are consumed and the initiates are known to enter visionary states where they meet their deceased tribal elders -- what they call “the work of the ancestors” -- and confront their shadow selves as a means of becoming aware of negative behavior patterns and character traits which cause illness and impede spiritual growth.

The person credited with introducing iboga to the U.S. is the Godfather of the movement, Howard Lotsof, a former heroin addict turned ibogaine evangelist who died last month of liver cancer at the age of 66. In 1962 Lotsof stumbled across ibogaine’s effectiveness with addiction when he found that after one dose he had lost his craving for heroin, and had miraculously leapfrogged the brutal and potentially fatal withdrawal process.

Lotsof tirelessly lobbied public officials and dogged researchers and pharmaceutical companies to investigate his claims about iboga’s miraculous properties. By the 1980s he was lay-administering the alkaloid ibogaine in capsule form to addicts in the Netherlands and was given a U.S. patent. Lotsof felt ibogaine’s true significance was in unlocking the mysteries of the neurobiology of addiction. By virtue of its origin he also believed it could serve as a means of reconnecting shamanic medicine to Western medicine. Secretly, he and his inner circle harbored fantasies of a revolution in consciousness, and ibogaine was one of their most viable Trojan Horses.

Here’s how the miracle works. The conventional approach to treating opiate addiction is to employ a substitution therapy like methadone or suboxone, maintenance drugs that keep the addict addicted to a less potent, more manageable opiate analog. This means that the only available treatment does not actually stop the addiction. So what’s the point?

Ibogaine works, it is believed, by filling in the receptor sites that the opiate molecules once sought, ending the craving for the drug, while at the same time metabolizing in the liver into noribogaine, which is thought to have powerful detoxifying and anti-depressant properties. The million dollar jackpot is that ibogaine can eliminate the exceedingly painful and dangerous opiate withdrawal process, sometimes in a single dose. In effect, it has the power to hit the reset button on the brain’s neurotransmitter mechanism.

Ibogaine has never been popular as a recreational drug regardless of its legal status. There is not a single recorded case of ibogaine addiction anywhere. Those who use it do so infrequently, because, like ayahuasca or peyote, it takes a toll on the mind, body and spirit, never mind that most folks don't consider vomiting and diarrhea to be particularly social activities. Only two iboga-related arrests are known to have occurred in the U.S., and 20 people are on record as having died within 72 hours of taking ibogaine, mostly due to either heart complications or drug contraindications.

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