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
March 16, 2010
By Charles Shaw
The first time I heard former Yippie activist Dana Beal mention
ibogaine I couldn't have cared less what he was talking about. I had
booked him to speak on political theater and creative
resistance...you know, Yippie shit...as one of a dozen speakers
featured at an all day Green Party rally we held in Washington Square
Park during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Beal is a shady,
self-promoting character. Instead of offering something useful to the
crowd, he gave a rambling sermon on the miracles of this obscure drug
that cured junkies of addiction. Holding up a collection of papers no
doubt meant to imbue his message with gravitas he ranted through a
byzantine cosmology of all the evil forces that were arrayed against
this miracle substance becoming a mainstream treatment.
I had no idea what ibogaine was nor that Beal was a member of the
"ibogaine underground," an ad-hoc network of doctors, researchers,
activists, shamans and lay-providers who believe that this substance
is the key to not only treating but unlocking an entirely new
paradigm in the understanding of addiction. This network is
underground because ibogaine and the iboga root from which it is made
are illegal in the U.S., designated Schedule 1 with a "high potential
for abuse or addiction and no known medicinal applications." Anyone
in the underground will tell you that's patently ridiculous,
"patently," they say, because the real root of ibogaine prohibition
is not that it causes addiction but that it might cure addiction,
sometimes with a single dose, and that sure is bad news for an
industry built around a so-called "chronic" disease.
The numbers are still small. Of the 26 million estimated addicts in
the United States, only a few thousand have tried ibogaine, and there
are only a handful of active practitioners around the world who are
giving treatments, so few that they all know each other. But this
underground is on the move, growing at a rate of some 30% a year. The
reason for this is quite simple: The War on Drugs is over, and drugs won.
None of the medically sanctioned forms of addiction treatment have
any success rate to speak of, particularly those for hard-core
addictions to opiates, alcohol, cocaine and meth. 90% of all those
who enter treatment will use again within five years, and half go
right back to active addiction within a year. Worse, with the
ever-increasing amount of drug-related arrests each year, what starts
out as a fixable public health issue becomes a lifelong socio-legal handicap.
Ibogaine smashes through all of this orthodoxy. Since its inception
in the 1980s, the ibogaine underground has been building an
alternative treatment infrastructure that completely redefines the
approach to addiction. Aside from the novelty, and irony, of a
psychedelic drug containing a potentially single-dose cure for drug
addiction, ibogaine therapy is also attractive because it redefines
success not as abstinence but as a measurable improvement in an
addict's quality of life, and this is because ibogaine is not about
prohibition or substitution, it's about spiritual evolution. Like
other plant medicines, if you'll pardon the pun, iboga is about
gettin' at the roots of the sickness. Consequently, it is leading a
kind of awakening, and it will only be a matter of time before
millions begin to seek it out.
Hitting the Reset Button
The story of ibogaine begins with addicts trying to help other
addicts, but along the way we find it's also about the conflict
between natural and Western medicine, and the moral bankruptcy of the
pharmaceutical industry, who are interested in developing maintenance
drugs, and not cures. And like any tale of revolution, this story is
about the internecine battles, personal perils, and professional
pitfalls of trying to change the paradigm. What sets this movement
apart from others is the unanimity of purpose: everyone involved in
the underground wants to heal.
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.
This specific focus on the treatment of addiction is what
distinguishes the ibogaine underground from other psychedelic
subcultures, like the rapidly growing ayahuasca community. Writing on
the "ibogaine medical subculture" for the Journal of
Ethno-Pharmacology, Alper and Lotsof describe the underground as,
"...homes, hotel rooms and private clinics in North America and
Europe, [where] individuals in increasing numbers are taking ibogaine
in what has been termed 'a vast uncontrolled experiment.'"
Because a safe and legal alternative is not available in the U.S, the
ibogistas have been forced on to more tolerant legal climes in
Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Europe in order to avoid becoming de
facto criminals. For those who remain in the states as lay-providers,
they role the dice every time they take an addict's life into their
hands, but they feel, unequivocally, that the medicine is safe and
the risk is worth it.
Alper and Lotsof claim that the ibogaine subculture is not a
counterculture because "its identity is not defined on the basis of
opposition to conventional medicine" and it "shares with the
conventional medical culture the common goal of providing treatment,
which it emulates in the medical model." This is partially true, and
really more a matter of opinion. To many, the ibogaine underground is
very much a counterculture, and its hard to argue that it is not
defined on the basis of its opposition to the disease model of
addiction. Additionally, the "medical model" they refer to --in which
licensed physicians conduct treatments that usually take place in a
hospital or clinic -- is only one of five elements of the ibogaine
underground that make up the full typology of the subculture. These
include evangelizing addicts and lay providers, activists, and
The Addict as Healer
Tijuana is a junkie that is hitting bottom. She's dying. Strung out,
desperate, unable to kick, her streets are empty and decaying, her
shops are closed. All across this sprawling border city of more than
1.5 million you see the shaky, splintered shells of abandoned
developments. It's as if everyone just up and vanished. It's a ghost
town, replete with a legion of narcotic zombies shuffling to and fro.
We talk about a drug war in the United States, but south of the
border this war is real. It's a shooting war that has decimated this
once thriving city. In the four years since Felipe Calderon became
Mexico's President and sent in the Federales, over 16,000 people have
been killed, 7,000 in the last year alone, 1400 of them in Tijuana
where three different cartels battle for control. Tourism and
development have evaporated, and Tijuana starves.
The American model of fighting the drug war has failed miserably in
Mexico. As is usually the case, the arrest of several high-profile
traffickers has done nothing to impact supply or demand. The
much-maligned $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a kind of Mexican "Plan
Columbia," has also been a dismal failure. So Mexico got creative,
and decided to try something new.
Despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth from politicians in
Washington, the Mexican government finally decriminalized personal
drug possession in August of 2009 (four days later, Argentina did the
same, releasing 150 million Latin Americans from the criminalization
of their lifestyles). This was done to shift law enforcement
priorities away from the users to the cartels, which is good because
business is booming. The streets are filled with junkies shooting up
in plain sight as you drive along the Segunda Benito Juarez border
highway. There is much poverty and suffering here, and no one should
be surprised that people want to escape. And if they can't escape
across the border, all they have left is to escape into dreamland.
Yet it is here, in the dark center of Mexico's drug war, where a
powerful ray of hope shines in the battle against addiction. Tijuana
is home to Pangea Biomedics, more commonly known to those in the
underground as the "Ibogaine Association," one of only a handful of
ibogaine treatment centers in the entire world.
Pangea's facilities are located in an enormous home inside a secure
gated community that's situated in the Costacoronado hills high above
La Playas de Tijuana. Yeah, it's true, Tijuana is dangerous, and you
can't take too many precautions these days. But Pangea's owner Clare
Wilkins swears they've never felt anything but welcome and blessed in
their relationship with their host city.
Born in South Africa and raised in Los Angeles, Clare first learned
of ibogaine at age 30. She had been addicted to opiates since she was
15, half her short life, and she was entering her eighth year on
methadone. Her sister Sarah, another former opiate addict who is now
Pangea's chef and nutritionist, gave her a copy of "Tripping on
Iboga," Daniel Pinchbeck's 1999 Salon.com article. It took Clare a
few years to build up both the courage and the cash to afford the
$3500 treatment fee, but in 2005 she eventually made her way down to
Tijuana to the Ibogaine Association, which was then owned by a man
named Martin Polanco.
Polanco was a fixture in the ibogaine underground for many years,
particularly in Mexico. He is credited with breaking open many heads,
including Rocky Caravelli, the owner of the "Awakening in the Dream"
ibogaine therapy house in Puerto Vallarta. Pinchbeck did his second
journey with iboga at Polanco's, where he met Randy Hencken of the
Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who had
just started overseeing a MAPS ibogaine program and would later
collaborate with Polanco on a study, only to have things go terribly wrong.
MAPS tapped Valerie Mojieko to design the study and sent her down to
undergo the treatment. Unbeknownst to her, Polanco was developing a
bad reputation for being a provider who gave poor-quality treatments.
Consequently, Mojieko had a very stressful and unpleasant experience,
at one point believing she was having major heart complications. Her
bad trip was made worse by the language barrier of Polanco's staff
and, ironically, their lack of training in how to care for people
having difficult psychedelic experiences, a major focus of Mojieko's
work. Shortly thereafter someone died while being treated by Polanco,
and the clinic had to be shut down. The MAPS study was dead in the water.
Around that same time Clare Wilkins came to Polanco for treatment and
she had a similarly alienating experience. Although as an addict she
respond well to the medicine, she was unable to connect with either
the setting or the treatment staff on hand. None of them were
addicts, and none of them had ever taken ibogaine.
"I was left completely alone when I did my treatment," Clare says,
making sure I understand how un-kosher this is. "I was the only
person in the clinic at the time. It was terrifying. I didn't want to
ever see another addict go through that if I could help it."
Intending only to volunteer for Polanco in order to have at least one
other addict present who knew what the patient was going through,
Clare, who has no formal training in addiction, psychology, or
medicine, ended up buying the Ibogaine Association from Polanco when
he ran into trouble. A chance meeting with MAPS founder Rick Doblin
at the 2006 Burning Man festival led to a renewed relationship with
the organization, and a new study.
Clare proved to be an autodidact, an honorary Ph.D in addiction like
Howard Lotsof, but she also knew that if she really wanted to
understand this medicine she needed to reach out to Lotsof in person,
to pay her respects to the Godfather.
"I called and introduced myself to Howard when I bought the clinic.
He asked me for my C.V. which I didn't have, so I felt embarrassed.
But he understood. He faced the same challenges in life, not having
any formal training (Lostoff had a degree in film from NYU). He
treated me like a colleague and told me that the underground was
vital to the success of this medicine. He was right. I've learned
more from the underground than anyone else."
In a span of less than four years Lotsof would become Clare's friend,
mentor, and spiritual father. She loved his compassion and drive and
the way he seemed to lack judgement, which she felt made him the
perfect advocate for addicts. She started booking treatments
immediately, modeling her approach after Lotsof's and mostly learning
on the fly. Within six months she moved Pangea into a new space, and
paid off the purchase to Polanco in only eighteen months. To date she
has given over 400 treatments.
They are not cheap. A full 10-day detox program runs about $7500, not
including travel. The marked increase over Polanco's fee reflects
improvements Clare made in the treatment protocols in the wake of
Valerie Mojieko's bad experience, and deaths at Polanco's clinic and
others within the underground, even at Pangea under Clare's
supervision, which caused everyone in the ibogaine underground to
take a good hard look at their own protocols. As a result, many of
them, including Clare, implemented more medical safeguards.
Pangea's comprehensive treatment is a complete holistic integrative
health plan, and the price tag reflects the doctors, nurses, EMTs,
massage therapists, and nutritionists she employs, a staff of twelve
with monthly expenses of around $30,000. Ultimately, though, the
medical staff are subordinate to Clare, who is the lead therapist and
"guide" during sessions. Unlike Polanco, who was often absent, Clare
is present for every one of her client's sessions.
Clare is quick to point out that half of the 400 treatments she has
given were either subsidized or free, which she says is common in the
underground. She also mentions that three of her former clients
formed a not-for-profit called "The Healing Experience" that raises
money to provide free treatments for those who can't afford them.
Lots of former addicts pay for treatments for others, or assist with
sessions, she tells me. It's part of their healing process.
"The only way this message is received is if its carried on the backs
and in the hearts of addicts," she says with utter conviction. "It
only works if addicts help each other."
Bringing it Home
It pains me to think about what my life might be like today had I
only known Clare Wilkins ten years ago. As my book, Exile Nation,
chronicles, I spent nearly a dozen years in flagrante delicto with a
brutal crack addiction, which I managed to kick the hard way shortly
after 9/11. After two decades of abuse and recovery, I prided myself
on knowing as much or more about addiction than any specialist, and
the one thing I was clear on was that the existing methods of
treatment left a lot to be desired. I am deeply cynical about the
medical establishment's position on addiction. I firmly believe, like
Carl Jung did, that addiction is a spiritual sickness, and that it is
not chronic, but can be cured. One does not have to saddle oneself
with the "addict/alcoholic" label for the rest of their lives. It's a
permanent, and unnecessary, handicap.
At the same time, however, I began to have some ambivalence about
taking ibogaine. Since I did not need detox, the technical term for
the type of treatment I was going to take is called
"Psycho-Spiritual." But let's be frank, I also knew that there was
fifteen odd years of hairy addiction shit to cull through as well,
and since I had heard iboga was a harsh taskmaster and didn't pull
any punches, I was growing afraid of what I was going to have to face.
After nearly four months of trying to coordinate our schedules, Clare
and I finally settle on the second week in February for me to travel
to Tijuana (of course, those who have taken iboga will tell you that
the medicine makes itself available to you when the time is right,
and not one minute before). I was in Los Angeles preparing for the
trip when we all got word that Howard Lotsof had died. Clare was
distraught and headed off to his funeral in New York and didn't know
if she'd be back in time for my visit.
I spent the week prior to the treatment on a strict diet of mostly
fruits, greens, and nuts. I had no alcohol, very little caffeine, and
drank gallons of detox tea. I crossed the border on the morning of
February 8th with my close friend Kristin, a psychotherapist
specializing in addiction and PTSD who works part-time at Pangea.
There was no traffic going into Mexico, and nearly a two-hour line
cued up on the other side waiting to get out. The night before at her
place in San Diego, Kristin showed me Ibogaine: Rite of Passage, an
eight-year-old film set in a Bwiti medicine ritual in Gabon, and at
Polanco's clinic in Tijuana, that featured Howard Lotsof and Randy
Hencken. Kristin takes great care to point out that Clare's protocols
are nothing like what I was seeing in the film.
"You're probably not going to take the medicine right away," Kristin
tells me, "you're just going to get your intake work done, and
prepare your system. You also need to acclimate to the setting. When
the moment is right, Clare will appear out of no where and tell you
its time. It could be days."
I went through a comprehensive intake that included a clinical
history, complete blood and urine panels, cardiac enzymes, the whole
enchilada. I found out I was healthy as a pack mule, albeit slightly
anemic. Later that night I was given the most sublimely painful
two-hour deep tissue detox massage by a Thai man named Neil who had
worked with ibogaine for psycho-spiritual purposes and told me it
helped him heal wounds stemming from his childhood in Thailand when
he was abandoned by his family, and as a result, could not experience
intimacy with anyone, including his wife and children.
"The med-cine keep working with you for many year," he said in broken
English. "It working when you not know it working, and den one day
you say, 'Ah, now it make sense!'"
There were two other clients at the clinic, a 26-year-old Orange
County princess strung out on Oxys, and a poly-addicted guy in his
early thirties from Detroit who was as magnificent a shit-talking
addict as I have ever met. When you've been an addict and spent your
life around them, at home, in school, at work, in bed, you very
quickly come to see who's serious about cleaning up and who's not. I
had strong doubts about both, particularly the kid from Detroit,
about whom I would prove correct. Both of them screamed I'm enabled,
what's your name?!
Clare and her sister Sarah show up at the house a couple hours after
I arrive. They both stand just over five feet tall, and have no
physical resemblance beyond that. Bespectacled Clare resembles a
hippie accountant, while ink-and-bleach Sarah is more skate punk.
They both project substantial presence.
Later that afternoon Chris Bava and his wife, Cat, stop by. Both are
artists and former clients who are renting a beautiful beach house
just down the hill from Pangea. Chris was a Category 5 poly-addicted
mess, hooked on heroin, ketamine, crystal meth, and methadone. He had
done three years in a federal joint for a drug related offense, and
was clean and sober for a number of years before falling back into
addiction. Clare had saved both of their lives through ibogaine
therapy, and they now paid their respects, as many former clients
did, by volunteering their time at the clinic.
"You can't really use me as an example, though," Chris says, waving
me off. "I'm not an an ibogaine success story, it didn't work on me
the first couple of times."
Cat quibbles, "After the second treatment he went on a ketamine
rampage and we had to commit him. That was when he was ready to quit,
that third time. And it worked."
Later the three of us are walking on the beach together while Jeff,
another former addict who is part of a provider training program, is
keeping an eye on the guy from Detroit, who is throwing balls to
Chris and Cat's dogs. Jeff is making sure Detroit doesn't try to cop
dope from someone on the beach or street. The addicts who come to
Pangea often need constant monitoring, like this guy. Within a day he
is caught with a smuggled set of works and it becomes apparent to the
staff that he has broken into the med closet and stolen methadone and
valium. After hanging around for a week, on his parents dime, without
undergoing the treatment, he eventually decides to leave, and Clare
ends up having to drop him across the border.
Cat pulls up alongside me as we shuffle through the sand.
"I wasn't expecting anything when I took ibogaine," she says in a
thick Aussie drawl, "but I found it cured me of smoking, and nicotine
was definitely my drug of choice. I smoked for 35 years! I expected
to die of lung cancer. I can't tell you how surprised I was not to
crave a cigarette. I was simply baffled."
The next day I fast after gagging down a handful of supplements with
a macrobiotic vegetable juice Sarah makes me, part of Pangea's
neurotransmitter replacement therapy regimen. The supplements are
meant to prep the brain for the ibogaine, and most of the addicts
coming in for treatment have depleted neurotransmitters and are
suffering from various degrees of depression, chronic fatigue, liver
issues, or viral infection. In some cases patients have to be
stabilized with benzodiazapines before they can undergo the
treatment, hence the valium on site. For the more benign cases,
marijuana is provided for anyone who wants it, to combat anxiety,
nausea, and depression. It's also available because it's considered
medicine, and it's not illegal. This small detail alone would be
considered radical, and most likely dangerous, across the border,
where just up the road in San Diego legal medical marijuana clinics
are raided on a weekly basis. To be honest, the weed makes for a nice
vibe, and in a place like this -- a trip factory, a healing center --
vibe is everything.
The last step in the preparation procedure is for me to take it in
the ass, literally, with a 48oz coffee enema, what Clare calls a
"crappuccino." She takes me into the bathroom to explain to me how to
do it properly.
"This significantly helps with absorption and detoxification. You
need to hold it in for 15 minutes. That's optimal because the liver
cycles out toxins every 5 minutes, so we need you to hold it in for
three full cycles. Just don't take it in too fast or you'll get
involuntary contractions and it will come back out even faster and
we'll have a hell of a mess to clean up."
We don't get around to beginning the procedure until nearly 10pm.
While I settle into my bed, Joaquin the EMT hooks me up to a cardiac
pulse/ox monitor and inserts an IV port into my arm in case of
emergency. I'm given one last dose of aminos along with omeprazol and
metoclopromide to combat nausea, and then Clare appears with the ibogaine.
My Experience with a Psychedelic Plant That Thousands Have Used for
Release from Severe Addictions
"The first sign that ibogaine is working is generally a loud buzzing
or ringing in the ears ... Soon after that I begin to feel warm and
things take on a light golden glow."
March 20, 2010
By Charles Shaw
This is the second of a two-part series on Ibogaine.
Before Clare gives me the ibogaine she has me write out my intention
for my journey, what I hope to get from the experience, and whatever
questions I may want to ask the iboga spirits. She takes my intention
and places it on a small altar she has built with candles and
feathers. She runs my body over with burning sage and then spreads
the smoke around the room, clearing spiritual energy and opening up
the space for the iboga spirits to enter and do their work.
She has me lie down on the bed. Next to me on the pillow are a set of
headphones hooked up to an ipod, and a special kind of visor
allegedly designed by famedd psychedelic and spiritual artist Alex
Grey that improves psychedelic visions. Clare takes my hand into hers.
"As part of the treatment plan here, I make a life contract with all
of my clients. Sometimes the medicine will open a door to the other
side and it will tell you you can go into it if you want. I make my
clients promise me they'll stay here in this life. They came here to
live, and that's exactly what they're going to do. I know you're not
in that place, but I gotta say it anyway. Who knows what you may want
to do once you're up there."
"No problem," I laugh, "I've got a lot to live for," and was warmed
by the truth of it. It was the perfect last thought before I began.
"Good," she replied. "Here's your test dose to get things started."
She hands me two large yellow and green capsules containing an 85%
pure mixture of ibogaine hydrochloride and alkaloid extract, In total
I would be administered 1.42 grams in three doses between 11:15 pm
and 2:15 am for a 17mg/kg overall dose, substantial for iboga. Clare
puts on some ethereal music with elegant and comforting female voices
and then turns off the lights in the room and leaves Joaquin, Jeff
and I in candlelight to await the onset.
The first sign that ibogaine is working is generally a loud buzzing
or ringing in the ears, which for me begins within the hour. Soon
after that I begin to feel warm and things take on a light golden
glow. I begin to see tracers following any movement, and it grows
increasingly difficult to focus my eyes on anything. That's when I
decide it's time to put on the visor and headphones and settle into
The shift to inner space almost immediately kickstarts a visionary
phase. The blackness that is enveloping me suddenly forms depth and
texture, morphing into a paisley-like tapestry that floats backwards,
forming a three dimensional space that looks like I can reach out and
touch it. The tapestry floats up and to the right, and then sails
away out of my vision like the magic carpet of Aladdin. This
pantomime, repeated over and over, would become the transitional
metaphor for each new vision I would have as the journey unfolded, as
if the floating tapestry was the stage curtain between acts of a
play, or the title card between scenes of a film.
I begin to see kaleidoscopic fireworks, bursts of color and light,
geometric patterns casting across the inner transom. They look almost
like neurons and synapses firing, like molecules passing back and
forth, valent energies interweaving. Then they begin to take on more
animation and I sensehave an intuitive understandingthat the lights
and patterns each have individual consciousness, that they are alive.
When Clare returns with my second dose, I remove the visor and see
elongated grey spirits resembling the paint splotches of Jackson
Pollack rapidly circling the room behind Clare's head. Floating
suspended in the same space are glowing blue orbs like energetic
jellyfish. The spirits would plow through the blue orbs, separating
them into droplets like oil in water. Just outside the sliding glass
doors on either side of the room are pools of spirits and blue energy
that cannot enter my room. In the background, massive spirit shapes
bigger than city buses pass by. I relate this information to Clare,
pointing out where I am seeing the shapes. She smiles and nods, knowingly.
"They are busy," she says. "Not all of them have time to stop in."
Clare changes the music and puts on a compilation of traditional
African tribal music that has beautiful, acrobatic vocalizations and
harmonies mixed in with powerful sounds of nature: water flowing,
thunderclaps and lightning, fire, rain and wind. This begins a new
phase of the journey that is not visual, but rather, emotional. I
understand the stories behind the songs, not through the words, but
though the emotions in the words, the tones, timbre, and energy of
the voices. I feel the loss of death, the joy of love, the fear of
displacement and hatred, the love of the land, the cries of freedom.
This is our land, this is our medicine, these are our spirits, we
welcome you, do you welcome us? What have you to offer?
Then the tapestries return, but instead of flying away they fold back
to form what looks to me like a space under my blanket, like a bed
fort a child would build with pillows and a flashlight. This "bed
fort," however, has the feel of an opium den, with Persian rugs and
It was about then I realize that I no longer have any fear about the
journey, that I feel comfortable and right. I am eager to go deeper,
to see more. I want to see what my vast and uncharted shadow has in
store for me. I feel confident I can handle anything now. Almost as
if it was waiting for me to think that, a voice says, not vast and
Another vision begins. Before me are caricatures of myself, jerky
low-res avatars like in a video game or graffiti art. These
caricatures communicate various aspects of my personality to me, not
through words or even scenes, but through symbolic movements,
repetitive motions somewhat similar to the "tape loops" others have
described, but significantly more symbolic in nature.
In this loop, I /the caricature of me begins with my hands folded
together in prayer, and I am still. Perpendicular to me is a long row
of what looks like giant playing cards as tall as me. Like any deck
of cards, there are number cards and face cards, except the face
cards are people in my life, and the number cards represent
"situations, consequences and outcomes." From the praying position I
then suddenly flail my arms backward and shake my head. Each time I
do this I knock down these cards like a row of dominoes. They race
around in a big loop until they come back full circle and knock me over.
The message is clear to me the entire time. This scene represents the
ongoing ebb and flow between my ego self and my higher self. When I
am in the praying position, it symbolizes the times when I am coming
from a place of humility and grounding, and as such, nothing is
disturbed. Each time I flail my arms wildly it represents me falling
back into ego, and invariably starting a chain reaction, symbolized
by the cards falling over like dominoes, which eventually come back
to bite me in the ass.
It was such a painfully simple representation of one of the hardest
personal lessons of my life, and yet, as I'm watching it, a voice
says, you know this...you've known this for a while, your only
challenge is to be vigilant and remember it. I kept expecting this
stern, paternalistic, tough-love, brutal assault on my character.
What I got was kind frankness instead.
You were afraid that you would come in here and see painful things
about yourself that you weren't ready to handle, but you've already
done all that work, and you didn't need us to do it. You know
yourself, because you took the time to get to know yourself, honestly
and critically, because you didn't want anymore pain. You wanted us
to show you how to be a better man, and yet, you already know. The
question is, will you BE that man? You've got everything you ever
asked for. You are lucky and loved and can speak to many. How will
you honor this every day? Will you help those who need it, who
suffered as you once suffered? How will you remind yourself that it's
not about you, that you are just a messenger? Go enjoy what you have
built, but always remember to spread that love and fortune, and
always be kind to yourself.
The true believers will tell you that the iboga spirits are speaking
to us every day through messengers and mediums, signs and symbols,
and all we need do is seek and we shall find. As if to reinforce this
from beyond the grave, the distinctive voice of Howard Lotsof (he was
missing many teeth) periodically comes through the headphones in
short clips that Clare had interspersed on the playlist. The plants
are alive and their speaking to us all the time, we just need to find
a way to listen to them. That's good medicine!
I describe all of this to Clare when she returns for the last time
before my session officially ends. She is flummoxed by my ability to
coherently describe the depth and breadth of my visions.
"You are the single most coherent person I have ever witnessed on
ibogaine. Most people can't speak or think clearly for a couple days,
much less move around."
When I tell her I am hungry too, she looks at me like I am from Mars.
Aside from some ataxia (a loss of balance and motor control), which
causes me to crack my forehead on some marble in the bathroom, I feel
great, but worn out. Unfortunately, I will not be able to sleep until
the following night, and I can't focus my vision for a whole day. I
would still be seeing trailers and auras a week later.
Removing me from the pulse/ox monitor, Clare tells me she's been in
constant contact with my partner in San Francisco, who also works
with plant medicine, giving her updates on my session. This tiny
personal gesture touches me deeply, and reveals so much about Clare's
true nature: evangelistically inquisitive and inclusive. I feel much
gratitude, which is what I tell Clare when she asks me how I'm doing.
"I get it, now" I say. "Remarkable plant. And you guys are incredible
at what you do."
She laughs. "Good. And to think that we've been called a 'back-alley
abortion' ibogaine clinic."
"Oh you haven't heard that? Hmpf. Deborah Mash said that."
"Deborah Mash? Really?"
"You know Deborah Mash?"
"I know of her," I say, and can't believe she would say such a thing.
"Absolutely I said that," Dr. Deborah Mash tells me when I contact
her at the University of Miami. "I think that addicts deserve the
best. I couldn't live with myself if I ever hurt someone. I didn't
take this cause forward to put others in harms way."
Mash is one of my heroes. Back in the Nineties she discovered
coca-ethylene, a chemical that is formed in the human body by the
liver when both cocaine and alcohol are ingested. Coca-ethylene is
longer acting, more potent, and substantially more addictive then
cocaine itself. I can tell you first hand about that one. No matter
how hard I tried to quit, alcohol always led to a relapse, and her
discovery helped me realize that to quit cocaine, and to stay quit, I
had to stop drinking for a while too.
One of the world's foremost scientific experts on ibogaine, Mash also
identified the active metabolite, noribogaine, that is credited with
the ability to detoxify and sustain a newly recovering addict (for
the record, she says "noribogaine" is a misnomer and that the
metabolite should be called "decmethylibogaine"). Mash also opened an
off-shore healing center on the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts, which
she used for research and development, gathering data on over 286
"This was the only study conducted to my knowledge that had qualified
professionals associated with it," she adds.
This not-so-subtle dig at the underground begins to touch on where
Mash and the rest part ways. As ibogaine was forced underground,
Mash's biggest concern became lay-providers and activist types, like
Polanco, Dana Beal, Eric Taub, Mark Emery, and, of course, Howard
Lotsof, who administer treatments in what she considers to be unsafe
"What you have got are people who don't know what they're doing. They
think they do, but they don't. And things can go wrong. Very, very
wrong. People have died in their care. I take that very seriously."
Mash is coming from a very different place than the addicts and the
ibogistas. She believes that addiction is a neurological disorder in
the same way as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's or cancer or diabetes,
and that addiction needs to be corrected medically. More importantly,
addicts need to be viewed with the same compassion as people
suffering from any of those other illnesses.
"It's in their genes, it's not their fault. They couldn't help
getting sick, they're not morally defective. We first have to
humanize them. These are sick people!" she says.
Here you start to see what really makes Mash tick. Despite her gruff
manner and her corrosive distrust of the underground, she really
cares about curing addiction. Addicts aren't lab rats to her, they're
suffering people. She's a doctor. You do the math.
"I would love to be able to give young addicts an ibogaine dose and
then stick them in treatment. As an adjutant to treatment, its
perfect, but its not the treatment itself. Think about if we could
help just a third of the people addicted to drugs, wouldn't that be
absolutely amazing? Well, we had a chance once, and we blew it."
Mash has certainly made her fair share of enemies in the ibogaine
underground. If the "back-alley abortion" comments didn't exactly
ingratiate her to her colleagues, her relationship with Howard Lotsof
is what sealed the deal. Lotsof is beloved by this community, a
sacred cow, yet Mash believes, ironically enough, that he's the one
ultimately responsible for ibogaine never going mainstream.
Back in the mid Nineties when she first discovered noribogaine, Mash
claims she offered Lotsof, who held the legal patents, a 50/50
partnership to move forward with research and get a study funded by
the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA). This could have led to
FDA approval of the drug and a pharmaceutical contract, which could
have reaped billions. Lotsof refused the offer and in turn "sicked
his lawyers" on Mash to prevent her from, as she puts it, "taking
away his baby." Lotsof then cut off her access to ibogaine, a move
which she took personally.
"Howard shot an arrow into the heart of the only scientific team to
ever get behind him," she says, the pain and frustration still
evident in her voice.
The net result was that NIDA refused to fund a formal study, Mash's
research was forced off-shore, and they did not get the millions in R
& D money that it takes to get a drug to market before Lotsof's
patents expired in 2003. Eventually, their feud spilled over into the
underground, and would end up polarizing along ideological lines.
"We were trying to get the medical community on board, and instead,
we got totally derailed," Mash laments. "The medical community wasn't
too crazy about the psychedelic aspects of ibogaine, and I felt (and
still feel) that the data supports that we can isolate that part of
the drug and have the metabolite without the psychotropic effects.
Crazy left-wing Howard and his buddies didn't go for that."
She says that the "obsession" the underground has with the visionary
aspect of the drug is at the expense of all those people they could
be helping. She still believes, however, in the potential of
iboga-related metabolites to revolutionize the field of addiction
treatment, even if she's given up hope on ibogaine itself. The
problem, she points out, is the hundreds of millions of dollars it
takes to develop a new drug.
"Who's going to pay for that? Dana Beal? Eric Taub? Marc Emery?"
Unfortunately, as far as public relations goes, the underground
hasn't done itself any favors, that's for sure. The most visible
leaders of the movement are mired in public controversy involving
drug allegations. Howard Lotsof ends up being the cleanest of the
lot. These include Polanco, Beal, Taub, and Emery.
Dana Beal is a suspected marijuana trafficker who was busted twice
between June of 2008 and September of 2009. He is currently free on
$500,000 bond facing a case in Nebraska in which he was caught with
150 pounds of weed, shortly after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in
an Illinois case in which he was caught with $150,000 in suspected drug money.
Eric Taub is considered, along with Lotsof and Mash, to be one of the
three main luminaries of the ibogaine movement. He is also what
Deborah Mash calls the prototypical "dangerous evangelizing
lay-provider." Taub has come under fire for allegedly running lassie
affair clinics in places like Costa Rica and Italy, and even more so
for setting up a mail-order business so that anyone who wants to
obtain iboga can. He's also got something of a god complex, according
to sources close to him who prefer to remain anonymous.
And then of course there's Marc Emery, the Canadian marijuana
activist/entrepreneur who was arrested in 2005 for "Conspiracy to
Distribute Marijuana and Seeds" in a controversial cross-border raid
by the D.E.A. who used the Vancouver police to do their dirty work.
Emery's defiant stance, and the widely held public view that he has
committed no crime and is the target of harassment, has earned him
folk hero status and the nickname, "The Prince of Pot."
In 2002 Emery opened the Iboga Therapy House outside Vancouver and
for the next three years funded dozens of free treatments for addicts
and those seeking "psycho-spiritual therapy." When he was arrested in
2005 he handed over ownership of the house to a not-for-profit
organization, and longtime therapist Sandra Karpetas assumed much of
the day-to-day operations. Karpetas, who along with Valerie Mojieko
is responsible for initiatiing the MAPS study which began in Canada,
is another autodidact with no formal training in addiction like Clare
Wilkins, except Karpetas was turned on to ibogaine by Marc Emery "for
purely initiatory purposes," she says.
Karpetas used a grant from the Women's Entheongen Fund, an offshoot
of the Woman's Visionary Congress, to reopen the Iboga Therapy House.
She went on to treat 65 patients between 2006 and 2008 before
financial constraints forced her to close it down. She is just now
preparing to reopen, with 700 people on her waiting list, and a
renewed focus on getting a formal study funded through Health Canada,
the Canadian health care system.
"Here in Canada we consider 'treatment' a much longer focused
program, so we define ibogaine use as 'therapy,' because its mostly a
detox program. We don't call iboga 'medicine' or a 'drug' or
'psychedelic.' We want to legitimize it here as a natural health
product, an herbal detoxification program. Its an important
distinction we make."
Karpetas relates how everyone who has had the iboga experience now
feels that they are part of an amazing global phenomenon, a movement
of compassion, of one helping another.
"The plants are urging us on. They are incredibly evolved life forms.
Look at the genome of a human compared to that of a simple plant, and
the plant wins. There is more to life than meets the eye, they are telling us."
When I finally speak to him on the phone, after connecting on
Facebook, Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis tells me he's in a hotel room in
New Jersey on day three of detoxing a young male heroin addict.
Dimitri is part of the neotribal wing of the ibogaine underground.
He's what's known as a "ritual/spiritual provider" who administers
iboga in its traditional root bark form in a Bwiti ritual. His New
York City based company, Iboga Life, conducts traditional Bwiti
medicine ceremonies, mostly for addicts, although, there are
He's no dilettante; this is a cat who's been around. He has undergone
several Bwiti iboga initiations in Gabon, and now refers to himself
euphemistically as a member of "Bwiti USA." He's also the cofounder
of the New York City Drug Users Union, and the subject of a new
documentary called "I'm Dangerous with Love," by acclaimed filmmaker
Michel Negroponte, director of Methadonia. The point is that this man
understands addiction. He has a serious, no bullshit New York
frankness to him.
"My role as a Bwiti is to detox junkies. That's what I do. And
junkies are very spiritual people and they're looking for this kind
of thing. What we're lacking is community and ceremony and a rite of
passage, a way to frame our lives. Bwiti is a system of plant
medicine where people can find healing and purpose. In particular, it
offers a way to help men reclaim their manhood."
Dimitri argues that addicts and indigenous peoples have a common bond
because they are both dislocated and disenfranchised, two of the last
social groups where it is still acceptable to portray them with
"Colonization and addiction are about infantilization,
desexualization, dehumanization, imprisonment, enslavement, and
expropriation, whether its land, family, your body or your will. We
help people reclaim all of it."
I ask him if he thinks the treatment will ever go above ground.
"Here's where I separate myself from most of the iboga community.
Most want this to be a pharmaceutical drug administered in hospitals,
right? But prescription, by definition, is not about access, its
about limiting access."
But what about safety? What about the people who have died?
"I don't give a fuck about that shit. Iboga has been around for 3900
years! It's fucking safe. I've seen babies eat it, I've seen pregnant
and breastfeeding woman eat it, dogs, old people, you name it. The
shit is safe! And if we can eat a natural bark or drink a vine that
cures our illness, we won't need the goddam people in the white coats
anymore. If we could drop the price and train thousands of lay
providers, than we've really got something going on."
His strategy, and critique, is simple. The psychedelic medicine
community, the "entheogen movement," as he calls it, is almost
exclusively made up of upper middle class, white male academics. But
the medicine comes from poor people in Africa, and yet it is unknown
to poor people in America, particularly African-Americans. This focus
on this racial and economic aspects of iboga has made Dimitri "the
red headed stepchild of the movement."
"Ibogaine gives us a real chance to bridge that socioeconomic gap,
but the medical establishment is afraid of who we are and the people
we are bringing in. So, really, this is the most revolutionary aspect
of this movement. It's turning on the Puerto Rican gang banger who
would otherwise never have taken this stuff that really inspires me.
I wanna make that happen."
Dimitri has deep love for Howard Lotsof, calling him "my father." He
tells me how Howard wanted to go into the African-American community
and throw open the doors to ibogaine for them, but the reception was
not what he expected.
"In the beginning we would stand out on 125th street in front of the
methadone clinics handing out fliers. You can probably guess hardly
anyone responded. But slowly those folks are starting to come to us.
Yeah...they'll get there."
He laughs and clears his throat, and then settles on a final thought.
"Look, we don't need to be here to help people. We just need to be
here for people who want to help themselves. How we do that is we
meet them where they are at."
It's all part of the vision
You hear those words uttered by nearly everyone iboga has touched, we
meet them where they are at. It's the mantra of this remarkable
collection of passionate, difficult people who come from the
perspective that the addicts are the real healers and iboga is merely
the catalyst, the inspiration. It's here, in the humanization, and in
many respects, elevation of these former scourges of society that we
see the real revolution, and why the medical establishment is simply
not interested in ibogaine. The underground's existence is a natural
consequence of that repudiation.
There's a philosophy known as "Dual-Power Strategy" that espouses the
creation of alternative institutions that embody the beliefs and
practices of breakaway, sub- or countercultures, a sort of positive
antidote to trying to change a system from inside that is hopelessly
ineffective and corrupt. The fundamental idea is to channel
transformative energy not into changing existing institutions but
rather into building viable alternatives. As these alternative
structures grow, like the cooperative movements in Argentina,
eventually they take on more and more of the functions of a larger
social system. Eventually they grow into an alternative
infrastructure that fulfills economic, political, social, and
cultural needs, like we have seen develop in America's evangelical community.
This is precisely what we see happening with alternative medicine,
whether its the burgeoning natural health industry, the integration
of eastern medicine, organic nutrition, addiction, or even the
movement against vaccines, the response to the Western model of
medicine has been profound. It is not surprising then that this
alternative philosophy is attractive to those in the "exile nation"
who feel oppressed, disempowered or disenfranchised within the
greater society. Addicts inhabit ground zero of this realm. So if an
addict can be treated with respect, have their spiritual pain
acknowledged, and feel the support of people around them who do not
judge them, then they not only have a chance at healing themselves,
but also bringing that healing to others. The ripple effect could
change the world.
This became clear in the weeks following my experience with ibogaine,
when I realized that now I too was part of this revolutionary
underground. People who followed along on my Facebook and Twitter
pages began contacting me. One friend told me just he returned from a
traditional Bwiti initiation ritual in Costa Rica. Most people told
me about their friends, brothers cousins, mothers, who were addicted
to heroin, nicotine, crack, meth, K, alcohol. They need help, they
didn't know what else to do, they've run out of options, should they
try ibogaine? It becomes abundantly clear that there will never be a
shortage of people wanting it, so does it really matter whether this
medicine is ever sanctioned by the medical establishment? It's clear
already that people who need it will find it anyway, when they've had enough.
I spoke with Clare over Skype a few weeks later to check some facts.
I had asked her to give me more information on the short recordings
of Howard that she had interspersed on the playlist she set up for my journey.
"I went through fifty gigabytes of music and I have no recordings of
Howard Lotsof talking about iboga. It sounds like it was part of your vision."
"That's impossible," I replied. I know what I heard."
I was dumbfounded. She could see it in my face. But she smiled, and
I thought I saw a tear form, but it could have been the light
reflecting off her glasses.
"Looks like Howard made it after all," I said.
Charles Shaw, a Chicago-based writer, is a regular contributor to
AlterNet. He is the former editorial director of the Conscious Choice
publications and a contributor to Reality Sandwich. He is currently
writing Exile Nation, a drug war memoir.