Fear and Loathing in the Five-Star Rehab: Inside the Controversy Around Ibogaine, the Psychedelic Drug That Just May Cure Addiction

Perched on a rocky cliff above the azure Pacific, in Rosarito, on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, sits the Holistic Sanctuary, a super luxe resort-clinic where the rich and tormented retreat to make all of their problems go away. A round white concrete disk with sweeping windows and a perimeter of stout palms, the Holistic Sanctuary looks like a UFO at rest. It is a bit alien, the facility, which describes itself as a “five star luxury drug rehab,” arrived here in 2009 (it had first opened in Los Angeles) to offer its patients plant-based detox treatments along with frond-roofed cottages, a tennis court, swimming pools and a state-of-the-art gym that overlooks the ocean. Johnny the Healer, the 40-something proprietor of the Sanctuary claims he can cure almost any ailment — PTSD, infections, eating disorders, sex addiction, boredom — but his specialty is addiction.

Johnny, who looks David Copperfield’s Persian cousin, is no 12-stepper. He’s not that pious. Instead he repairs his patients using what he calls the Pouyan Method, a way, way out-of-the-box mélange of treatments that includes but isn’t limited to organic green coffee enemas; juice cleanses; wheatgrass shots; sleep sessions in a hyperbaric chamber; a vegan, GMO-free diet rich in organic fruits, vegetables and superfoods; stem cell therapy; oxygen therapy; massages; Reiki healing; yoga; session in the carbon sauna; ionic Dead Sea-salt baths; powerful IV vitamin drips; and the removal of tooth fillings. “The Pouyan Method is perfect,” Johnny told Salon. “It gets the brain to pre-addiction state, activates stem cells, cleans out the GI tract, gets rid of parasites, fungi, mold, pathogens in the body that are just sitting there.”

A course of treatment at the Holistic Sanctuary, which ranges in cost from $20,000 to $50,000, combines the Pouyan Method with plant-based medicines, like ayahuasca and ibogaine, the naturally occurring drug derived from the root of a West African rain forest bush called iboga. In addition to being the most potent treatment in Johnny’s medicine chest, ibogaine is an increasingly popular, but long-misunderstood medicine with thousands of years of history. Classified as an “entheogen,” a sacred earth medicine that “generates the God within,” it is possibly the most powerful psychedelic known to mankind. It may also be the most humane and effective addiction treatment out there.

Many people first heard about ibogaine treatment in the spring of 2015 when Veuve-drenched celebutard Scott Disick, father of Kourtney Kardashian’s children and infamous presence on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” announced that he was jetting to Costa Rica to loosen addiction’s grip with a series of “shaman guided Iboga flights” at the Rythmia Life Advancement Center, another five-star oceanfront rehab with a mud-bath spa and gourmet restaurant. Disick said, via a press release, “Rythmia’s rehab approach puts my worries at ease. The fact that there is a money back guarantee that has never been called upon gives me even more confidence.”

The tabloid press devoured the news, dispatching paparazzi and daring to ask, “What’s ibogaine?” Disick was roundly criticized for leaving Rythmia’s treatment center after only one week rather than the recommended four. Disick, however, claimed that the ibogaine treatment worked. “It kind of resets the receptors in your brain and kind of helps you kind of remember and look at your childhood and gain knowledge on what’s gone wrong that makes you want to either drink or do drugs or whatever it may be that compensates for what you’re not getting,” he told People. “It helped me dramatically to see some of the things that have troubled me in the past, but I’m not done,” he said. “I plan to go back and I hope it helps me even more to get to a point where I’m fully cured of some of things that I struggle with.” After leaving the Costa Rica clinic, Disick flew directly to Las Vegas to host a party at the nightclub 1 OAK.

For hundreds of years the Bwiti people of Gabon have consumed the root bark of the iboga plant in religious ceremonies as a rite of passage. Western doctors learned of ibogaine’s therapeutic applications in 1962 after a 19-year-old heroin addict from New York City named Howard Lotsoff ingested ibogaine for a psychedelic trip. He later reported that when he emerged from the influence of the drug 48 hours later, he had no heroin cravings or withdrawal symptoms. In the late-1960s and early ’70s, amid worries over the rising popularity of LSD, ibogaine was classified as a Schedule I substance with potential for abuse and without therapeutic value. It briefly entered the popular consciousness during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Hunter S. Thompson speculated in a chapter of “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” that ran serialized in Rolling Stone with the headline “Big Ed Exposed as Ibogaine Addict” that candidate Edmund Muskie, who’d been acting strange, was dabbling in the “Holy Wood.” “Muskie looked out at the crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people,” Thompson wrote. “His mind snapped completely as he he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs.”

More than four decades later, ibogaine is having a moment. After years of being administered in Alphabet City basements and jungle huts by former junkies reborn as self-styled shamans, ibogaine is being embraced by people open to the possibilities of alternative medicines that once would have landed you in the clink. The World Health Organization now lists ketamine — the psychedelic rave staple Special K — on its list of essential medicines. Ketamine clinics, where those who are severely depressed can go for a therapeutic intravenous drip, have recently opened. And a studies published in medical journals like Progress in Nero-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry suggest that methylenedioxy-methamphetamine or MDMA (aka ecstasy or Molly) can be useful for treating PTSD, depression and the symptoms of social anxiety, particularly in autistic adults.

Most ibogaine treatment centers utilize the “Malibu model” of drug treatment — palm trees, turquoise waters, radiant orange sunsets — but otherwise ibogaine represents a drastic departure from the now dominant 12-step model of addiction treatment. “Ibogaine therapy isn’t punitive,” Peter Kroupa, a former smack addict and tech entrepreneur turned full-time ibogaine advocate, told Salon. “It’s not the classic 12-step stuff where you show up and and they tell you you’re all terrible people who have a perpetual and incurable disease.”


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