ACHTWAN'S ONE-STEP IBOGA EXTRACT & an article
Posted 30 April 2009 - 09:28 PM
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Posted 20 March 2010 - 10:15 AM
The Iboga Insurrection (Pt.1)
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 with this Bilbo-Baggins-meets-David-Crosby vibe. 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 roughly twenty 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 ritual/spiritual shamans.
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.
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 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 journey.
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 sense—have an intuitive understanding—that 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 glowing lamps.
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 uncharted! Known!
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 ibogaine treatments.
“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 conditions.
“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 psycho-spiritual clients.
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 vicious stereotypes.
“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 is the author of Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, appearing exclusively on Reality Sandwich.